By Chris Rogers, Jan 30 2017 3:04PM
The continued popularity of the post-apocalyptic film is no surprise. There is always a fresh fear to be mined for its one fundamental necessity, The Thing That Happened, whether that be war, natural disaster, man-made accident or alien invasion. With three broad formats available (road movie, revolutionary struggle or simply survival) atop this, the scope for intimate character drama or epic action is wide and deep. And, finally, the continual and rapid evolution in the capability and affordability of digital technologies allows more and more to be accomplished with less and less when it comes to realising such an idea. This, then, is the context in which The White King, made by joint writer/directors (and spouses) Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel after a novel by György Dragomán, arrives and has to operate.
The setting is a small rural community in the Homeland, a repressive state whose propaganda – delivered through the trident icon on posters and billboards, the words of its national anthem and, most inescapably, a great statue on a nearby hill personifying the founder figure of Hank Lumber – stresses the collective, agrarian nature of this new post-conflict society. However, young Djata Fitz (Lorenzo Allchurch) is forced to stand by as his father Peter (Ross Partridge) is taken away by black-clad officials, supposedly to help with an important project but, it becomes clear, actually as a traitor. Djata and his mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) survive in the face of neighbours’ scorn, bullying and a complete lack of information. Peter’s father, a colonel (Jonathan Pryce), and his wife Kathrin (Fiona Shaw), meanwhile, tempt Djata to his own dark side. Finally, determining to find answers, Hannah and Djata set out to confront another senior regime officer on the far side of their settlement.
The initial impression here is encouraging. An animated film under the opening credits tells the stylised story of the nation’s founding, the tools of control are subtly and effectively introduced and wide-eyed Allchurch and fragile Deyn look the part. And yet, already, problems arise. Djata’s school has several dozen pupils but appears only as a wooden shack and a patch of open ground. The structure holding his home and those of his neighbours seems to be a loading dock rather than anything recognisably domestic, and the only other spaces we see are scrubby clearings in a forest. That events occur in the thirtieth year of the new state is stressed, but no explanation of the significance of this is given.
True, things perk up with the journey to the estate of General Meade (Greta Scacchi) – we see open country dotted with apartment blocks emblazoned with vast entreaties to think of DUTY or FAMILY, then reach a Modernist dwelling with armed guards and fitted out with clearly advanced technology – and the confrontation that occurs therein, but instead of presenting a convincing contrast to the no-doubt-enforced backwards/backwoods existence of the masses, the entire sequence is awkward and unfocused, something that proves to affect the remainder of the film.
Throughout, then, scenes are stilted and fragmented, but not in a way that suggests this is deliberate. Too much happens in isolation, with too little organic linkage to what came before or after. Incidents occur but are promptly forgotten. Thus one character is stabbed, but the injury is ignored and invisible in subsequent appearances. Djata and his friends live in fear of two local thugs, both significantly older, yet nevertheless play with them. A chess-playing automaton in Meade’s house captivates the chess-playing Djata, but the importance of either the game or the machine (or the film’s title) is not clear. Djata dares to meet a hulking watchman living in a fenced-off wood at the foot of the hill, but all that follows is an impenetrable conversation that ends – bafflingly – in a hug, and the grim contents of a fabled cave are explained only as “not for children”. The significance of a dragonfly hovering in the opening scene is not established. There is little sense of how much time has passed. Nothing, in essence, hangs together, making it difficult to invest in the story. The lack of any real emotion in the performances hardly helps, though Deyn does moderately well and Pryce convinces as a bullish, intimidating veteran. The eclecticism of the casting – often a plus in such films – seems a barrier too, with a mix of nationalities, accents and approaches failing to gel.
The penultimate scene, in a crematorium, and the closing shots – intended, quite plainly, as the impassioned climax to the journeys of two heroes – unfortunately left me astonished and amused in equal measure as opposed to moved.
What comes as real surprise is that the source novel is by a writer brought up in Ceaușescu’s Romania, surely a background ripe with potential. Yes, that blighted country’s socio-political landscape is clearly borrowed from in part, but that the overall result of this adaptation is so uninspiring is baffling. It also seems odd that a dystopian film shot in Hungary could end up being quite so starved of visual richness, but that indeed is the case. That the film is evidently of modest budget is not, regrettably, an excuse – imagination creates opportunity and both Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Colm McCathy’s Girl with all the Gifts (2016), to take two obvious recent precedents, demonstrate this. Ultimately though the real fault and disappointment is that too much of the content is opaque, uninvolving or just plain unconvincing, with neither plot nor characters really worth spending any time with. Sadly, then, this White King made me feel like resigning from the game.
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