You know the drill: after all, it has been done so many times in recent years. A film comes out, based on a young adult novel, about a child protagonist living in the poor part of a totalitarian future state. Circumstance leads them to a rebellion, and they become instrumental is overthrowing-
We can stop right there, because The White King is a somewhat remarkable exception. It is based on a young adult novel, written by György Dragomán, and has been adapted to the screen by writer/directors Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel. It is about a child protagonist, a boy named Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch), and he does live in the poor part of a totalitarian future state. One day his father (Ross Partridge) is taken away by the secret police, and Djata and his mother (Agyness Deyn) find themselves targeted by their community as traitors. He does not find a rebellion, however, and he is not instrumental in overthrowing anything. After all, Djata is a child.
What we find instead is a remarkably bleak drama for older children and teenagers about living inside a repressive, militarised state. We never find out where in the world the so-called ‘homeland’ is located, and the cast generally adopt vague trans-Atlantic accents that could be in the UK but could be North American as well. Odd scenes of high-technology vehicles and machines make it clear that the film is set some time in our near-future, but it is all deliberately vague and thus approaches a universal representation: ‘homeland’ is potentially anywhere or everywhere. It makes Djata’s experience all the better for viewers to relate to it.
It is a rather episodic affair, following a series of incidents that affect Djata after his father is ‘disappeared’. He begins to be bullied by classmates and a teacher. Two violent young men assault his friends and steal his soccer ball. He and his mother face growing prejudice in town; considered guilty by association. One complex element appearing through Djata’s experiences is his paternal grandfather (Jonathan Pryce). He is a hero of the revolution, both loving and despising his son, and desperately hoping that Djata will not make the same choices that his father did. He demonstrates both cruelty and affection, pushing firmly the idea that totalitarianism isn’t created by monsters but by ordinary people. Lorenzo Allchurch makes a strong impression as Djata, giving the audience an easy viewpoint for the dreadful situation around him.
This feels like a somewhat underrated film, because compared to most young adult fare of this type it is low on incident and does not lead to some large-scale climax as audiences might expect. Realism is the focus here, and it absolutely succeeds at showing the bleak, miserable drudgery that comes under oppressive regimes. Told from the viewpoint of a child, it does not even flesh out the 30 year-old revolution, political system, or social detail. What it loses in world-building it gains in emotional effect. This is a modest, unexpected, and effective alternative to the standard teen formula – and all the stronger for it.