You can’t move for dystopia these days – whether it’s the pervasive force of the Investigatory Powers Act (or ‘Snooper’s Charter’ if you prefer), the rise of the far right around Europe and in post-Brexit Britain or the schlock-horror reality show that is the 45th Presidency of the United States, there is plenty around to divert and depress us.
It is interesting, therefore, in the midst of all this necessarily big-picture chaos, to watch Alex Helfrecht and Jörge Tittel’s The White King, which offers up a thought-provoking, if ultimately unsatisfying, look at the daily grind for ordinary people in a brutal dictatorship.
Based on György Dragomán’s novel of the same name, screenwriter/directors Helfrecht and Tittel present the story of Djata Fitz – a young boy in a geographically undisclosed totalitarian state known officially and generally as The Homeland. One even speculates, given the transatlantic accents, whether this might be a glimpse at an American future. His father Peter is taken away by government officials and, once Djata discovers that Peter has been imprisoned and is not doing work of special governmental importance, resolves to discover where he is being kept. Whether his influential paternal grandfather – a senior army officer – will be able to help before his impoverished mother (daggers drawn with her in-laws) reaches the point of utter desperation remains to be seen.
What strikes one immediately is that this is possibly the best-lit totalitarian state committed to film. Not for us the shadowy concrete drabness of an East German Stasi flick or a Nazi ghetto – in The Homeland, it is perpetual summer, with director of photography René Richter overseeing the creation of visuals that smack more of ‘Oklahama!’ than ‘Brazil’. From breadlines to violent battles royal among the younger members of the cast even up to the ever-present colossus of the supposed founder of the Homeland that looms from a hilltop over the region, 98% of the movie is suffused in bright yellow sunlight, making for an interesting sensory clash. The only shadows cast are metaphorical.
Performances are well-intentioned and generally well-executed, from Lorenzo Allchurch as a righteously-indignant and likeable Djata, having to juggle emerging adolescence with the state tearing apart his family, through to former model Agyness Deyn, now several pictures in to her acting career, proving that she has considerable ability across the emotional spectrum.
Speaking of Brazil, the star is here – Jonathan Pryce playing Djata’s grandfather Colonel Fitz in a performance that swerves uncomfortably between twinkle-eyed grandpa and stern, bloodless organ of the state but which at least has more depth than that offered to his onscreen wife Fiona Shaw – a magnificent actress sadly clamped into a role of unbending psychopathy with very little room for manoeuvre.
Greta Scacchi makes a fearsome appearance as an army general who, like most authority figures in this film, can go from obsequious pleasantness to violent rage in no time at all, while, further down the starry pecking order, we have delightful, nuanced and sympathetic outings from Malachi Hallett as Djata’s best friend Shabby and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Pickaxe – a social outcast who guards The Homeland’s dirtiest secrets. Olivia Williams is also touted in pre-publicity as a star, but you won’t see her. Watch out for the General’s pet robot though.
However, while the film scores major points for ambition and visuals, the story itself is a bit something-and-nothing and wanders round a number of tangents from the main plot with no particular development. We see the brutality of the Homeland’s approach through its schools in one disturbing sequence involving a military schoolmaster credited only as Iron Fist, but nothing further. There is a long and gut-wrenching side-story involving bloodthirsty, troubled but highly privileged twins (played perfectly well by Jeffrey and Matthew Postlethwaite) challenging our young heroes to more and more extreme battles of honour, leading to some pretty vicious and disturbing results, but this does not really serve the plot or go anywhere either. Even the film’s conclusion feels like a massive build-up to no great end.
Helfrecht and Tittel have created in The White King a true Wizard of Oz movie, which is to say that the outward appearance is magnificent and awe-inspiring and the performances are impressive, committed and capable, but when you pull back the curtain, the substance is very small indeed. Nevertheless, worth a look, particularly if you enjoy watching talented actors craft interesting character studies.
Dir: Alex Helfrecht, Jörg Tittel
Scr: Alex Helfrecht, Jörg Tittel from the novel by György Dragomán
DoP: René Richter
Prd: Alex Helfrecht, Jörg Tittel , Philip Munger, Viktória Petrányi, Judit Sós, Fredrik Zander
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Fiona Shaw, Greta Scacchi, Olivia Williams (voice), Agyness Deyn, Lorenzo Allchurch, Ross Partridge, Jeffrey Postlethwaite, Matthew Postlethwaite, Malachi Hallett, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Adebayo Bolaji, Ton Kas, Derek de Lint
The White King is in selected cinemas from January 27 and on digital and DVD on Jan 30.