‘The One-Eyed King’ (‘El Rei Borni’): Film Review
Catalan Marc Crehuet’s theater piece about the various victims of a manipulative political system is elegantly transferred to the screen.
With rare exceptions, recent Spanish comedies have been anodyne romances, failed attempts to replicate the romantic success of the record-breaking Spanish Affair. So it’s refreshing to report that Marc Crehuet’s entirely unromantic The One-Eyed King wants nothing to do with all that. An edgy political comedy based on Crehuet's own play, its roots are in the financial crisis of 2008 and after, which suggests that the pic has an applicability which extends beyond Spanish borders. This is one script setup which, with appropriate tweaking, could be made to work anywhere, its real point being that we’re living in a society which is failing everyone, apart from the 1%.
Pablo Sanchez’s lively title credits are a fun and punchy intro to a fun, punchy film. It retains the limited scenarios of the play and is basically set in the cramped, dully lit and generally uninspiring apartment of riot cop David (Alain Hernandez, oozing physical presence), and his hyper-conventional, cuisine-obsessed wife Liydia (Betsy Turnez), both unknowingly trapped in roles society has ascribed to them, which is the film’s main point. The first blackly comic conversation turns on the fact that David, a self-branded "expert in crowd management," has shot a bullet into the eyes of two separate protesters so far this year, and that Lidia has invited an old friend for dinner.
The old friend is actress Sandra (Ruth Llopis), who's risen up in the world more than Lidia has, generating some fine comic dialogue between the two women. But more importantly, Sandra’s depressive, insecure partner Ignasi (Miki Esparbe), sitting across the dinner table, is wearing an eyepatch because — guess what? — he’s one of the the guys who lost his eye to David. There’s your high concept, right there.
If it sounds like a blackly comedic situation, then black comedy is indeed what you get, via some wonderfully written and played dialogue which is happy to sacrifice nuance to the higher aim of telling it how it is. No longer able to live with the fact that her husband is a moral Neanderthal, Lydia walks out on him: When David seeks advice from Ignasi about what to do, Ignasi takes the opportunity to teach him a life lesson about how the system is manipulating them all in what he calls a "mafia world."
But hilariously — and thought-provokingly — David takes Ignasi’s “another world is possible” rhetoric too literally, and kidnaps a politician (Xesc Cabot). “I shot his eye out,” he tells Lydia plaintively and powerfully, “and nobody told me it was wrong.”
Full of good things though it is, One-Eyed King remains more of a pretender than the real thing. Though the performances are strong and nuanced, bearing the hallmarks of experience acquired during the play’s theatrical run, the roles themselves tend too strongly to exaggeration. This is perhaps justifiable in the case of Llopis, who isn’t given much screen time to escape from the stereotype of the confused but well-meaning, empty-talking New Ager Sandra, but it’s quite damaging in the case of David, who starts off as credible but morally blind, but who ends up looking merely comically stupid.
The same is true of Lydia, whose clumsy attempts to hide her obvious racism generate some really amusing moments — but the problem is that, by provoking our laughter at this working-class characters in this way, the script may be adopting the same morally superior attitude to them as Ignasi (well-played by Esparbe, but with a speech impediment which adds very little to things) and Sandra do.
But none of this affects the big picture. It’s a film brimming with ideas — many of which have been on the lips of many people since the outbreak of a financial crisis which some say is over, but from the effects of which many are still suffering. In One-Eyed King, David represents the Law, and he’s been taught to be violent. So his kidnapping of the politician points to the limitations of the system which created him: “It’s dangerous to think too much,” Lydia rightly muses. Likewise, the timid attitudes of the protesters Ignasi and Sandra when David actually decides to go ahead and change the world, rather than just talking about it, are a solid argument against bleeding heart liberalism. Nothing is black and white.
The fourth-wall-breaking final scene is too obviously a final scene. Its quietness and self-reflection, given the noisiness of what’s come before, probably worked well in front of a theater audience, but onscreen it feels more like a whimper than a bang.
Production companies: Moire Films, Lastor Media, El Terrat
Cast: Alain Hernandez, Miki Esparbe, Betsy Turnez, Ruth Llopis, Xesc Cabot
Director-screenwriter: Marc Crehuet
Producers: Alain Hernandez, Miki Esparbe, Betsy Turnez, Xavi Gimenez, Sylvia Steinbrecht, Ana Vilella, Alejandra Guimera, Marc Crehuet, Sergi Moreno, Tono Folguera
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Sylvia Steinbrecht
Costume designer: Violeta Comella
Editor: Jaime Avila
Sales: Moire Films
Not rated, 87 minutes