The White King is a film made without attention to detail, real intention or a plot that holds up to even minor scrutiny.
The White King is a dystopian thriller set in a near-future totalitarian society with a tween protagonist. It is also, unfortunately, wracked by all the problems that can befall such a story: the parameters of the world it has built are neither consistent nor clearly articulated, the cultural shorthand it employs as a substitute for narration is tired and hackneyed and the boy protagonist limits the extent to which the plot can allow the viewer to explore what life is now like.
Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch) is a 12-year-old boy whose chief concern centers on finding as much time as he can to kick his soccer ball around with his friends. That is, until his father, Peter (Ross Partridge), is arrested by two nefarious-looking goons. This makes Djata and his mother social outcasts increasingly alienated from their narrow community. Djata turns to his paternal grandfather, Colonel Fitz (Jonathan Pryce), a prominent political leader, to find answers but is left disappointed. Eventually, the boy decides he needs to take matters into his own hands.
What is fun about dystopian thrillers is the way that they allow viewers (or readers, in a different medium) to discover what this brave new world is all about: the way that politics are arrayed, what people wear, eat and study and the central issues troubling members of this society. The White King, as is common in the genre, diligently obscures as much of this as it can, which normally helps to build suspense and/or a sense of mystery: viewers will continue giving the film attention because their curiosity for answers overwhelms their sense of confusion. Except The White King is neither mysterious nor confusing; when the film does not provide the answer to a central issue, it is because the filmmakers lack the creativity to provide it. What is happening and why are clear; there is just no reason for the viewer to care. Rather than anxiously awaiting answers, then, the viewer is bored.
The reason The White King fails to engender interest in the land in which it is set is that the world-building presented to the viewer is so dull and careless. There has been a Luddite revolution against the omnipresence of technology in daily life, and the result, it seems, is an authoritarian state running a command economy, where dissent is not tolerated. The landscape is littered with discarded industrial waste (such as huge piles of worn tires), Soviet Bloc-style brutalist apartment buildings and well-tended farm fields. There are intrusive security cameras sporadically placed throughout the area, but they miss more than they see.
From here, the viewer is expected to fill in the details. Not only does that come across as lazy filmmaking, but it is an effort that is constantly frustrated by errors in the details. For instance, where does the coffee on the store shelves come from? Why is the regime’s “dark secret” (a central plot device) hidden in a compound guarded by a chain link fence that a 12-year-old boy can so easily climb? Even more maddening, when the film does bother to reveal part of the world, it does so by plagiarizing imagery from previous bits of screen culture: the steaming smokestacks and brick factory that Children of Men borrowed from Pink Floyd, a bulky helicopter-plane lifted straight out of the “Fallout” video games and a sleek futuristic sports car suspiciously similar to the aesthetics of The Hunger Games franchise. This is worldbuilding as “You know, like that other thing” and a shrug, which is obviously less than interesting.
Finally, the plot stalls because the protagonist is a tween. He lacks the mental, physical and emotional maturity to make the family-driven drama at the film’s center work. As an example, in The White King’s most credulity-destroying scene, Djata leaps into the air and strikes a muscled, trained security officer with a small club, hitting him with such violence that the man’s powerful body flails helplessly to the floor with enough force to suggest he had been run over by a dump truck rather than smacked by a small child.
The White King is a film made without attention to detail, real intention or a plot that holds up to even minor scrutiny. Any of these shortcomings alone would probably be enough to really sink it, but when taken all together, these myriad problems ruin the viewing experience.