What a difference a year makes.

Well, half a year.

This isn’t what I was originally going to write about The White King.

Not at all.

I first saw husband-and-wife team Alex Helfrecht and Jorg Tittel’s bold reimagining of Gyorgy Dragoman’s semi-autobiographical novel The White King back in June, at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox.

Sat in the forgiving dark of a mid-morning press screening, a day or so after the first murder of a sitting MP in over 25 years, watching this hymn to the joys, pain and petty humiliations of coming of age in a dystopian future totalitarian society, The White King felt like a thought experiment, a cautionary tale, a “what if…?”

It seemed inconceivable that only a week later the red-trousered brigade of inbred chinless millionaire Brexiteers would successfully hoodwink the English working class (and it was mostly English…) into swallowing their soggy biscuit and voting against their own best interests to provide an ailing Tory government with an excuse to leave Europe and swing ever further to the Right. The mere mention of the possibility of a Trump Presidency was the easy joke made by the less talented comic on a TV panel show. And no one in their wildest fantasies foresaw the resistible rise of Gallic Nazi MILF Marine Le Pen. And my fantasies get pretty wild.

Looking back now, the last six months have felt like we’re living through the death of one world and the birth of a new order, through the treacle-slow, painful collapse of society and the failure of democracy that a ‘70s dystopian movie would knock off in a swift monochrome credits montage before jumping straight to the good stuff where Yul Brynner is killing mutant/cannibals in the ruins of the future wasteland while Charlton Heston tucks into his Soylent Green. Six months down the line, as POTUS Trump and his good ol’ boys do their best to turn America into a hysterical am-dram production of Margaret Atwood’s worst nightmares while our own political whores do everything but actively lobby to rename Britain Airstrip One, The White King doesn’t seem like quite such a “what if…?” anymore. Six months down the line it feels a whole lot more like a prediction.

A loose collection of interlinked stories that illuminated the hermetically sealed society of Nicholae Ceausescu’s Romania through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Helfrecht and Tittel have taken Dragoman’ award-winning book and boiled it down to its fundamentals – a boy is forced to grow up fast when the regime imprisons his politically undesirable father – and transposed it to the near (well, nearish…) future, to an unnamed country peopled mostly by English actors with American accents referred to as the Homeland, a Stalinist Agrarian utopia of collectivism with a golden sun-dappled ’50s aesthetic that stands in sharp contrast to the hardships faced by our young hero. The politics are a little woolly, more Stalinist than anything else but this is no cozy YA tale of rebellion, this is Orwell as seen through the eyes of a child, our young protagonist Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch) closer to Winston Smith than Catnip Evergreen, his future a boot heel stamping on the human face, in Djata’s case the face of the father who disappears at the start of the film for reeducation. But while Smith had to deal with doublethink, thoughtcrime and Big Brother, Djata must deal with the far more dangerous ordeals of brutal teachers and neighbourhood bullies as he and his mother Hannah (a fantastic Agyness Deyn) struggle to survive under the watchful eye of the White King, an enormous statue that dominates the landscape.

Nothing much really happens. But everything happens, the film following Djata’s awakening both politically and as an adult as he uncovers the horrible truth about his world, innocence dying with hope, the film devastating even as it offers the faintest glimmers of salvation. The performances are universally good, Allchurch carrying the film on his narrow shoulders while Jonathan Pryce and Fiona Shaw shine as Djata’s doting grandparents, loyal Party members and true believers who’ll brook no dissent and despise the daughter-in-law they blame for leading astray their son. But the true revelation is former waifish clotheshorse Deyn who’s simply stunning as the devoted wife and mother pushed to breaking point.

An uncompromising vision of a dystopian future, The White King’s greatest strength, chess-playing robots and gleaming supercars aside, is that it feels like a hazy, nostalgic memory, a nightmare tinged with gold. And that’s truly unsettling.

Movie Review: The White King
4.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (3 Votes)

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