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A very European fable of totalitarian oppression becomes unwisely Americanized in The White King, an intriguing but ultimately underwhelming feature debut by the wife-and-husband writer-director team Alex Helfrecht and Jorg Tittel. With a strong cast headed by youthful newcomer Lorenzo Allchurch, this Hungary-shot British production may ride grimly topical themes into festival play and a measure of theatrical release, though prospects on all fronts will depend on marketers somehow working out a target audience for this well-intentioned but ploddy affair.
On paper, this is a YA franchise-launching venture in which a plucky pre-teen rebels against his fascist upbringing. But the finished product lacks the budget necessary for action-thriller set-pieces. Nor is it sufficiently focused or acute in its concepts to rely on dialogue and character-interplay. The results fall awkwardly between demographic stools — much too glum for kids, too kid-oriented for adults — and fans of Gyorgy Dragoman’s acclaimed source novel won’t be alone in their disappointment.
Born in the Romania of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to an ethnically Hungarian family, Dragoman moved to Hungary as a teenager and drew on his own childhood for The White King, originally published in Hungarian in 2005. The prize-winning novel has been translated into several languages in the interim, its discrete chapters exploring the indoctrination of malleable-minded youth via the central figure of 12-year-old Djata (Allchurch).
In the film, Djata’s idyllic home life is shattered when his father is bundled off by the authorities for destinations unknown, leaving his mother (Agyness Deyn) distraught but defiant. She’s reluctant to turn to her well-connected in-laws for help, as the military-minded Colonel Fitz (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Kathrin (Fiona Shaw) have long despised her origins as an “undesirable” of unspecified stripe.
Helfrecht and Tittel use identifiably central-European locations — bucolic, sun-dappled farmland — but then take considerable pains to “universalize” what is at heart a very specific story. Nearly all of the characters speak with American accents; the isolated settlement where Djata and his mother live is conspicuously multiracial. The general vibe is more South Carolina than Transylvania, and there are indications that what we’re seeing is a near-future dystopia which has somehow emerged from the current geo-political setup — hints, even, of a possible Shyamalan-type twist along the lines of The Village.
But in translating Dragoman’s literary speculations to the screen, Helfrecht and Tittel fatally struggle to craft a coherent, convincing day-after-tomorrow reality. The “Homeland” (never named or geographically pinpointed) has the distinct feel of a post-industrial, agrarian, Soviet-style — or maybe even North Korean — collective. But the ubiquitous propaganda and iconography revolves around heroic farm-boy/founding father Hank Lumber, rather than any Stalin-type supreme leader.
And there’s no real payoff, no properly satisfying “reveal” — proceedings frustratingly conclude mid-air, following the surprise reappearance of Djata’s dad during a family funeral, a sequence which rings hollow on every level. It’s as if the directors are setting us up for further installments (the book is a stand-alone) during which all the pieces will fall into place.
Present in nearly every scene, the alert-eyed Allchurch makes for a bright, sympathetic lead, and should go on to bigger things in the near future. Bringing a welcome whiff of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to the Orwellian proceedings, meanwhile, Pryce exudes welcome gravitas as his ramrod-patriotic grandfather — the early scene in which he trains Djata in firearms by goading him to shoot a hapless cat hits an appropriately chilling note. But Shaw and Greta Scacchi aren’t so well-served by the screenplay — Shaw in particular is left haplessly high and dry during the histrionic climax — and Deyn struggles to find much shading in her one-note character.
Competently shot in widescreen by Rene Richter, The White King (a nebulously symbolic title, deriving from the chess games Djata plays with his dad) could certainly have benefited from a more distinctive visual aesthetic. It doesn’t help that the animated, near-monochrome opening titles (by London digital-design company Spov) deliver preliminary exposition in such arrestingly slam-bang style — thus writing a check which the ensuing hour-and-a-half never looks like cashing.
Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival
Production company: Oiffy
Cast: Lorenzo Allchurch, Agyness Deyn, Jonathan Pryce, Fiona Shaw, Greta Scacchi, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Director-screenwriters: Alex Helfrecht, Jorg Tittel; based on the novel by Gyorgy Dragoman
Producers: Alex Helfrecht, Jorg Tittel, Teun Hilte, Philip Munger
Director of photography: Rene Richter
Production designer: Richard Bullock
Costume designer: Sharon Long
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Composer: Joanna Bruzdowicz
Casting: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
Sales: Fortissimo, Amsterdam
Not rated, 89 minutes
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