A shadow has fallen across Europe and beyond, stretching from Russia to distant America, at its centre a figure who is pulling the strings of the nations like they were puppets, the courts of three cousins dancing to a tune composed by agents acting against the interest of their states, King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia rivals since childhood who now control great empires and command restless armies.
The year is 1914, and Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, travels to Bosnia at the request of his friend Herbert Kitchener to convince the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of an imminent threat to his safety, but despite best efforts history unfolds, a cruel turn into a dead end which gives opportunity to assassin Gavrilo Princip, but he is only a follower, one of the flock; who is the mysterious Shepherd to whom he is beholden?
Following Kingsman: The Secret Service and its direct sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, both directed by Matthew Vaughn and co-written with Jane Goldman based on the stories of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, The King’s Man is this time co-written with Karl Gajdusek, Vaughn exploring a very different time in the company of a new cast, set against the twisted politics and bloody battlefields of the Great War.
Armed with charm and umbrella and as resourceful and refined as The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Monsieur Gustave, Ralph Fiennes is Orlando, a pacifist in a time of war who has the ear of the King (Tom Hollander in a triple role as George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, resentful and most easily manipulated of the cousins, each distinguishable by their ostentatious yet individual facial hair) and War Secretary Kitchener (Charles Dance).
At his side are his servants Shola and nanny Polly (Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton), invisible to the noble classes but capable of more than serving tea or taking care of the children, the Duke’s son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) now of an age where he can join the army in defiance of his father’s wishes that he serve his beleaguered country in another capacity.
Arrayed against them are the spy Mata Hari and the mentalist Erik Jan Hanussen, but most of all the mystic Grigori Rasputin who holds the Czar and his family hostage to his obsessions, Rhys Ifans in a demented and unpredictable performance of dancing, debauchery and drugged Bakewell Tart, a dangerous challenge which strips Fiennes’ English gentleman of his reserve and his trousers.
A history lesson as much about the atrocities of the trenches as what happens behind closed doors, the actions and plans of those who only hear reports of the suffering, where those who die in the mud are heroes only after the fact, The King’s Man depicts the founding of the organisation which operates outside of politics and conventional intelligence services, dedicated to the principle which will serve the greatest number of people: peace.
As would be expected of the clientele of Savile Row’s finest tailors, the suits are sharp, the costumes impeccable, the sets impressive and the action dynamic and frequent but never at the expense of the characters who remain at the heart of the story, risking all not only to save themselves and their family but the lives of an entire generation of men on both sides of the lines.