Thursday 8 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (5) - KING OF THE BELGIANS (Peter Brosens, Jessica Woolworth, Belgium). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

King of the Belgians (2016), Belgium. Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth (Directors and Scriptwriters). Bo Films, Entre Chien et Loup and Topkapi Films (Production). With Peter Van den Begin (King Nicholas III of Belgium), Lucie DeBay (Louise – public relations officer to the King), Titus De Voogdt (Carlos, formerly a member of the defence forces and now valet to the King), Bruno Georis (Ludovic, former Belgian ambassador and now principal attaché to the King) and Peter van der Houwen (Duncan Lloyd, film director).

Returning home with my partner from this, the second film of the day (my infirmity both physical and mental now prohibits me from seeing four films a day which was my custom for many years at the festival), I was asked by my partner which film I preferred. I said that the first was interesting but with a plot line similar to many noir and neo-noir films from the 40' s onwards, whereas King of the Belgians struck me as quite unique. I immediately reflected that this is not quite true because films of the like of: The King Steps Out (Josef von Sternberg, 1936) have a very long history in cinema making. Less so in the current age because there are far fewer kings, especially kings "on the run" and presumably because the adventures or travails of kings don't play well in Boise, Idaho nor in Beijing, China.

Whilst making a state visit to Turkey, it is suddenly announced that one of the formative parts of Belgium has seceded requiring the immediate return of the King – the symbol of the unity of the country, at least in his own estimation. This is precluded by a solar storm grounding all aircraft and the determination of the Turkish officials to keep the King safe and sound. With his royal entourage, and more or less under the guidance of Duncan who is making a fly on the wall movie about "Our King" and previously was a skilled war reporter, they make their escape with various difficulties, partly self-caused with Turkish officials hot on the heels. In the last step, they travel by boat hopefully to Italy but by bad navigation end up in Albania, where the king is recognised and is to be returned to his own country – whatever it now is.

This is clearly at one level a very entertaining film. There is one central "conceit" which is that everything is being recorded on the fly by Duncan, with the stock to be subsequently edited to a politically satisfactory and presumably bland exposition of the King's trip. What is in fact recorded is anything but that. All that one can expect from a handheld camera, no crew, ill-considered framing, are all handled in the most absolutely professional fashion. So convincing is this that one or two scenes which I thought were not being recorded on the film within the film, still seemed convincing. The scenery of the Balkans – I don't know which country or countries was in fact photographed, looked very intriguing.

However, I think there is something rather more important going on. Apparently the dialogue was largely composed by the actors themselves and Peter Van den Begin as King Nicholas SEEMS to be modelling himself on the late King of Belgium, King Baudouin. In a scarcely developed moment King Nicholas tells a young Balkan girl that he has no children. He says this with a wistful matter of fact line. The real King was similarly childless which was a very considerable burden to himself and his queen, both very pious Catholics. The real King was in life dedicated but very reserved. King Nicholas seems to have the same character, dutiful but living in a sort of externally created passivity. Almost childlikeness. Unlike British royals who are sartorially splendid, his suit doesn't fit very well and this amplifies the sense of someone who hasn't quite grown up.

Around him are loyal servants, that is loyal to him personally as well as to the jobs the state has given them in relation to the King. No matter what happens they remain deeply respectful of the individual who is their boss. And like all modern films which concern and inner and outer journey, the King grows into his role which is to unify his country when he returns. Whether he does we don't find out but we do find out that he is resolved and that he understands his purpose in life. The acting of the star is simply outstanding. It is a real work of creation of character from within.

So far this has been one of the real surprises at the festival and it has my complete endorsement.

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