The White King
EIFF 2016: Moderately successful dystopian adventure, starring Agyness Deyn and Jonathan Pryce
Husband and wife filmmakers Jörg Tittel and Alex Helfrecht make their feature debut with this boys’ own adventure based on the award-winning second novel from György Dragomán. The story of a 12-year-old growing up in an isolated totalitarian homeland (based on Ceaușescu’s Romania) looks the part and brings together an impressive cast but never quite takes hold emotionally, or manages to establish a satisfying tone.
Coming off like an amalgamation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hunger Games films and The Goonies, The White King will have some appeal to young adults craving their dystopian fix and it compares favourably to effects-swamped alternatives. It follows Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch) whose rebellious father Peter (Ross Partridge) is whisked away at the outset. His destination, unbeknownst to his son, is a prison camp. Djata’s mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) weeps, frets and wracks her brains for a solution, while Djata spends his birthday with his authoritarian grandparents (Jonathan Pryce and Fiona Shaw), fends off bullies and goes hunting for treasure.
The crisply shot rural expanses are nicely contrasted with the stifling fanaticism of the regime, while the filmmakers show some flair for concealing what was presumably a modest budget (a single futuristic residence gives an indication of the gulf between the classes and the hypocrisy of those in power). Young Allchurch withstands the scrutiny of the lead role, and if Deyn is poorly served by a script that confines her to the doldrums she’s rarely less than convincing. Greta Scacchi’s sly, sexually exploitative general feels like a refreshing gender-swap and despite the negligible screen-time of Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (from TV’s Trapped), playing a Hagrid-like figure, his big, burly presence is most welcome.
The source material is hardly a weighty tome, presenting Djarta’s travails as if a selection of short stories. However, in film form, such narrative shifts feel less eccentric and more inconsistent, the humour has been lost, and – with the whole enterprise clocking in at a mere 89-minutes – the episodes are overly condensed. The regime’s ideology, too, is underexplored, meaning that The White King isn’t especially thought-provoking, nor sophisticated enough to win over accompanying adults. Regardless, the combination of brutality-lite, high jinks and life lessons may be enough to satisfy older kids.
Screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016. General release TBC.