A noble attempt to bring a little-known chapter of British history to the screen, 'To Kill a King' is ultimately about as nourishing as a vending machine lunch. It chops up the basic story of the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, turns it into easily digestible (and dramatically tarted-up) bite sized pieces, then removes most of the action while adding enough scenery-chewing to fill an entire season at the British Conservatory. For history buffs, 'To Kill a King' is not an entirely unentertaining snack, but for the rest of us, it's rather unfulfilling.
Our story begins in 1645. After years of civil war, King Charles I (Rupert Everett) is overthrown, and two heroes emerge -- Lord General Thomas Fairfax (Dougray Scott) and his best friend and deputy General Oliver Cromwell (Tim Roth). Their friendship is threatened when Fairfax and his wife, Lady Anne (Olivia Williams), conspire to return the King to power, prompting Cornwell to order Fairfax's execution, thereby seizing control. As Cornwell's armies spread violence and fear throughout the country, Fairfax realizes that he must be stopped, and with that mission at hand, their bond as comrades at arms will be irreparably broken.
The film apparently didn't have the budget for even a tenth of the action of a film like 'Gladiator.' Much like the recent 'Elizabeth' saga, 'To Kill a King' is a dialogue-heavy picture, with lots of discussion of battles fought, as well as planned tactical maneuvers, yet much of these events play out off-screen. This is another historical "epic" obsessed with the double-dealings in the hallowed halls of great would-be leaders, who spend their time plotting the destruction of their enemies, but don't get out there and do the fighting themselves. The "Masterpiece Theatre" approach is further exacerbated by director Mike Barker's decision to focus on the petty squabbling of Fairfax and Cromwell, as well as on an underdeveloped subplot with Lady Anne, who is battling her struggle between allegiance to her husband and earning the love of her monarchist father (Colin Redgrave).
Produced in the UK in 2003, 'To Kill a King' boasts a strong cast of known actors, all of whom seem to be outbidding each other in the overacting department. Roth's squirrely aggression has begun to border on self-parody lately, with his last memorable role about seven years past, as the evil Thade in Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes' remake. He still appears to be in howling monkey mode here, and he and costar Scott, are never able to flesh theirs characters out into anything more than one-dimensional pawns in Barker's historical chess game. Williams, meanwhile, is largely a token female with little to do. At least Everett camps it up to the hilt, so that even if his King Charles comes off as just as phony as the rest, he's at least amusing to watch -- Everett makes acting seem positively hedonistic.
'To Kill a King' is one of those odd little movies that few have heard of, and it probably would have flown under the radar of just about anyone reading this if Starz hadn't decided to release it now on Blu-ray. It's a curiosity -- a strong cast marred by plotty, bland historical material that lacks action and truly involving drama. As a basic history lesson, it does effectively illuminate an interesting period of British history, and the film boasts decent enough production values (the costume design in particular is a standout), but aside from die hard historical buffs, it's hard to imagine most viewers finding 'To Kill a King' at all riveting, either as an action spectacle or as a period drama.
'To Kill a King' is the latest Blu-ray from Starz Home Entertainment, who late last year put out their first batch of high-def releases (including such horror classics as 'Halloween' and a clutch of 'Masters of Horror' episodes) but who haven't been heard from since. Now they're back with 'To Kill a King,' a perfectly nice-looking effort that is sure to please the movie's approximately half-dozen fans.
Starz presents 'To Kill a King' in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The limited budget of the production sometimes shows through, with a dark and grainy picture that lacks the big razzle-dazzle CGI vistas of mainstream Hollywood action spectacle (don't expect a '300' here). Colors are often deliberately muted, but overall the palette is reproduced well with no obvious defects (such as heavy bleeding or excessive chroma noise). Contrast also runs hot. Detail is generally strong, however, with a fairly obvious sense of depth and a sharp picture. Again, darker moments suffer weak shadow delineation and a heavy black crush. There are also some compression nitpicks, particularly a few moments of banding during slow dissolves, as well as noise mixed in with the film grain. However, All in all, 'To Kill a King' looks pretty good.
Unfortunately, the back of the box says that Starz has provided only Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, though the menus say PCM 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit). (A English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, 192kpbs option is also included.) In any case, I've only been able to extract 640kbps DD out of my PS3/receiver combo. (We're currently awaiting word from Starz on what the actual encode is on the disc.) The result, for me, is a lackluster presentation of a film with lackluster sound design.
Given the generally talky nature of 'To Kill a King,' there is little action to embolden the proceedings. Surround use is fairly dull, with only a few noticeable discrete effects and that's about it. The rather generic score (by Richard G. Mitchell) is made even more forgettable by a recessed presence in the mix, which further dulls any sense of envelopment. Dialogue, however, is nicely reproduced and well balanced, primarily in the center channel. This is also a perfectly fine-sound recording, with a fairly spacious sense of dynamics and the subwoofer receiving a serviceable workout. Just don't expect any sonic pomp and circumstance with this one.
Thanks to Starz's lack of labeling of any bonus features, I initially missed the few extras provided. Unfortuntately, what we do get here is a token anyway...
'To Kill a King' is a valiant attempt at making a lesser-known (at least to us Yanks) slice of British history into an entertaining period yarn. Unfortunately, the lack of action will turn off the '300' crowd, and the film's dodgy political intrigue makes it no 'Elizabeth.' Likewise, this Blu-ray is fairly middle of the road -- the video looks pretty good, but the audio is flavorless and there are minimal extras. British history fans should give this a rent, but all others will probably feel safe to take a pass.