The White King, based on György Dragomán’s novel of the same name, may be set in a dystopian future, but it’s unlike those we’ve grown to know over the last couple of years. The whole thing not only feels like something that could happen but also like something that could happen very soon. On the surface the setting is idyllic, with the beautiful Hungarian countryside as the film’s backdrop. But as with all dystopian futures, it soon transpires that not everything is as it seems.
There are films that do ‘sinister fascist future’ a lot better, but The White King gives the subgenre a refreshing new angle. We see events unfold through the eyes of a young boy named Djata, who has grown up under a totalitarian state called the Homeland and has never known anything else. Djata isn’t as clued up on the state’s politics as the adults around him, but he knows enough for the audience to feel corruption leaking into his innocent, 12-year-old world. It’s quite upsetting to watch.
The story starts with Djata playing checkers with his father as they lounge on a riverbank, accompanied by his mother, on the gloriously sunny day. But they’re being watched; high-tech CCTV cameras follow their movements from long stalks, and a monumental statue of a man with a pitchfork stands over the valley from a hilltop in the background. A state-owned truck crashes the party, and it’s not long before Djata’s father is saying goodbye to his family and being taken away by government agents to places unknown.
From there, the film follows Djata’s pre-teen years as he deals with bullies – both young and grown up – and attempts to find out the real reason his father has been absent for a portion of his childhood.
The cast of politically diverse and divisive characters offer a very human look at both sides of the mechanics of a dictatorship, from the people constantly being affected by it to the people making it happen. Although it’s clear which side the film sympathises with, it’s somehow still insightful on both ends.
The White King is in cinemas from 27 January and available to buy on DVD and digital on 30 January.