The White King (2016)
Dir.: Alex Helfrecht, Jörg Tittel
Cast: Lorenzo Allchurch, Agyness Deyn, Jonathan Pryce, Fiona Shaw, Greta Scacchi, Ross Partridge, Olafur Darri Olafson;
88min | UK/Germany/Sweden/Hungary 2016 | Drama
First time directors/writers, husband and wife team Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel ambitious attempt to transpose Gyorgy Dragoman’s dystopian novel lacks the resources and imagination to be a convincing post-doomsday scenario. Furthermore, the original novel, set in Ceausescu’s Rumania, seems to have been transported to the South of the USA, with American accents in the majority.
Twelve year-old Djata (Allchurch) has an idyllic outing with his parents Hannah (Deyn) and father Peter (Partridge) at a lake. On their return to their isolated village, Peter is arrested and taken to prison. Soon Hannah and Djata are being humiliated and starved in the village, which is tyrannically ruled by the State’s military dictatorship using the figure of Hank Lumber, farmer and founder of “Homeland”, as a cover. His huge, larger-than-life figure is placed Stalin-like on the nearby hill, to warn off foreign invaders. Hannah tries to enlist the help of Peter’s parents, Colonel Fitz (Priyce) and his wife Kathryn (Shaw), who are close to the regime. But after encouraging Djata to shoot a helpless cat on his visit to their home, it slowly dawns on us that help is not on its way. Hannah now looks for the support of General Meade (Scacchi), who is equally unwilling to find out more about Peter’s whereabouts. After Colonel Fitz dies, having relented a little towards Djata and Hannah, his funeral sets up an anti-climatic and implausible showdown.
Dragoman, an ethnic Hungarian, fled to Hungary from Romania, where his novel was published in 2005, before the current regime, a right-wing authoritarian version of Ceausescu’s Stalinism, took over. Whilst shooting in the Hungarian countryside, the film makers were unnerved by the government setting up border walls, to keep out Syrian refugees. But they somehow failed to find an aesthetic language to translate their vision onto the screen. The CCTV cameras in the village are rather unthreatening and never detecting any trouble. The only presence of the regime seems to consist of teachers and shopkeepers, bullying the population into submission. But the worst are the hapless characters, all very gender-specific in a v traditional way and absurdly one-dimensional. Furthermore, we never learn the motives for Peter’s actions; he was a major in the army, but how and why he became a resistance fighter is left open. Everything is on a purely emotional level, leaving out any tangible explanations. What is left feels like a nebulous collage, referring to a game of chess Djata played with his father. Rene Richter’s images are competent, but no more. The cast is left to struggle and the audience, whilst taking sides, never gets properly engrossed and is left disappointed by a rather hollow display. AS
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