The White King follows 12-year-old Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch), who is forced to deal with the fallout of his father’s imprisonment in a totalitarian state.
Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel’s adaptation of the Hungarian novel of the same name is a strange one because it doesn’t quite know what it is. Is it an intimate film about a child fighting the system to be reunited with his father? Or is it a broad comment on totalitarian regimes, presciently showing us they are closer to us than we think? The film struggles to effectively connect the Djata’s deeply personal story with the bigger picture.
It’s a shame because for all of Lorenzo Allchurch’s sincere acting, Djata is more an avatar in a videogame than a character in a film, jumping from plot point to plot point until the denouement. Agyness Deyn gives a strong performance too. In fact everyone does, including Jonathan Pryce and Fiona Shaw as Djata’s grandparents, but they are undermined by the choppy editing and a chronic lack of scenes together.
Hannah only talks to her parents through the house intercom – a surprising choice on the film’s part given a great deal of tension in The White King is meant to come from the hatred she feels for her father. As the film wears on, even Djata’s imprisoned father (Ross Partridge) – the whole reason Djata is in this totalitarian mess – is reduced to macguffin-level. Only there to inspire plot rather than character development.
That’s not to say The White King is all bad. It may struggle with the intimacy of the story, but its depiction of the Homeland works well. The film’s presentation of the regime has a low-key feel that works in its favour. The characters wear nondescript clothes that one can almost see turning into rags before our eyes; they live in basic huts and play football with a scruffy ball in abandoned industrial site It could be a dystopian future or 1970s Soviet Union. It’s an interesting depiction of a totalitarian regime, efficiently packing a lot of ideas into very little.
One can feel the conviction of the regime, that the ideology is working just by looking at the characters. We can almost hear it shouting, “Look! These people live humble, holistic lives!” Of course we know they don’t, the long queues for bread – always the most effective way to visualise authoritarian inefficiency – tell us as much, but it adds an interesting dynamic to the film. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few. 2/5