3 out of 5 stars

Moving away from the Bond spoofery of the Kingsman franchise’s first two outings and into Boy’s Own (or even Horrible Histories) territory, The King’s Man is surprisingly attentive to accurate historical detail at times and gleefully absurd at others. For example, it’s true that Gavrilo Princip only managed to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 by luck–triggering World War I—when the Archduke’s driver took a wrong turn. But it’s certainly not true that the entire conflict was orchestrated from a mountain-top redoubt by an irritable Scottish nationalist goat-farmer…

The King’s Man begins earlier, during the Boer War, with the English duke Orlando (Ralph Fiennes) and his family paying a visit to a concentration camp where the British are holding Boer prisoners. Orlando represents the Red Cross, and is resolutely anti-war, despite having been a successful soldier earlier in his life. A tragic incident at the camp only reinforces this, and when the film soon moves forward to 1914 and the beginning of the Great War, he’s determined to do whatever he can to bring it to a close—and also that his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) should not serve despite the boy’s hankering for military glory.

Orlando even enlists the aid of his friend Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance) to ensure that Conrad will get nowhere near the front. But at the same time, Orlando, Conrad, and a small group of others are working to derail a plot to bring about Britain’s defeat, dreamed up by the shadowy and clearly evil Shepherd (telling you who plays him would give away one of the movie’s two big twists).

This takes them to the court of Tsar Nicholas in Russia, where they match wits with Rasputin (Rhys Ifans); later they take on the legendary spy Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) too, and the team’s immersion in the murk of international intelligence and intrigue establishes The King’s Man as an origin story for the Kingsman agency featured in the first two films (2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle).

Conrad, meanwhile, continues trying to volunteer against his father’s wishes, and some of the movie’s best scenes—as well as its most dramatic surprise—are set in the mud of the Western Front.

The King’s Man suffers a little from the absence of the charismatic Taron Egerton, who played the lead character so confidently in the first two movies. Dickinson, in a sense the Egerton equivalent here as a young chap getting his first taste of the secret world, is bland by comparison. But Fiennes goes a long way toward making up for that, giving Lord Oxford genuine depth as a man who’s assured and vulnerable, both part of the English Establishment and somewhat radical in his views; he also has good screen chemistry with Gemma Arterton, playing a servant in his household with whom he seems to have something more heartfelt than the usual master-servant relationship. 

The fondness between them is completely credible, as she mixes it with just the right degree of sharpness. Djimon Hounsou, meanwhile, complements both of them as another long-serving member of Lord Oxford’s staff (first seen as his driver in the Boer War sequence), and the three make up an implausible but very likeable kind of tweedy Impossible Missions Force.

A much more cartoonish performance comes from Ifans as Rasputin—foul-mouthed, threatening, voracious in his appetites—while Dance is perfectly cast as Kitchener, and Daniel Brühl (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) is nicely devious as an aide to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. The real start of the supporting cast, though, is Tom Hollander in three roles: the Kaiser, the Tsar, and King George V of England (all cousins in real life). In Hollander’s hands they are partly comic upper-class twits, but not entirely—he imbues them also with some poignancy, as representatives of a fast-disappearing world.

The King’s Man has plenty of action, from the killing of Rasputin to the fighting in the trenches to the eventual assault on the dastardly Shepherd’s mountain fastness. All of it is well-handled and none of it is overlong; indeed, much of the film’s success comes from writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek knowing when to stop a scene, a joke, or a narrative thread. As a result, a few things that don’t quite make sense never stick out enough to puncture our acceptance of the storyline, and the clever blending of numerous real incidents and people with the fictional gives what is really a preposterous story some veneer of truth.

Much of the pleasure of The King’s Man lies, in fact, in those often unexpected forays out of fantasy and into history. The rest of it lies in the performances, especially Fiennes, Arterton, Dance, and Hollander, who take their characters seriously enough that—like the historical moments—they turn what might have been a purely silly film into one with actual gravitas. And there’s certainly plenty of scope for continuing to develop the franchise as a back story, rather than just retreading the contemporary setting of the first movie (as many critics felt the second did).

A tiny coda at the end of The King’s Man suggests the next instalment of the Kingsman franchise will take the saga into the 1930s and 1940s; in the one after that, perhaps the agency will recruit (or reject) a young James Bond? That would be no surprise, but we should also expect the unexpected in a series that with The King’s Man has taken a new, inventive and promising turn.

UK • USA | 2021 | 130 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Matthew Vaughn.
writers: Matthew Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek (story by Matthew Vaughn; based on the graphic novel ‘The Secret Service’ by Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons).
starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson & Daniel Brühl.