Venice Film Festival: King of the Belgians

King of the Belgians
Directed by Jessica Woodworth & Peter Brosens
Starring Peter Van Den Begin, Lucie Debay, Titus De Voogdt and Bruno Georis

by Jenny Donoghue

What do you do when you’re King of Belgium and your country falls apart while you’re stuck in Turkey? That’s the question in this surprisingly quirky comedy drama from writer-director team Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens. While King Nicholas, played with endearing naivety and believable royal gravitas by Peter Van den Begin, is fictional, the political conflict in Belgium between the Walloons and the Flemish is based on real tensions. The film handles a lot of very current issues, including the modern and changing face of the EU, the question of the role of monarchy in contemporary society, and the struggle of a King trying to be relevant, to relate to common people, and to make a difference from a position that is more figurehead than tangible power.

The King is set up as a fairly impotent, quiet man under tight control of the Prime Minister and the Queen, almost a little cartoonish in his naïve sweetness. We’re introduced to his PR team, each immediately strong characters in their own right and it’s established how important it is for them to keep everything under tight control. Which makes things all the more enjoyable when their control unravels, both over their journey and over the King’s determination to achieve freedom of speech.

Shot in mockumentary style, the film’s tone evokes the British Office, with a mix of really funny moments among the sincerity, subtle realism, awkwardness, and endearing human moments. Nicholas’ attempts to return to save his country and find his voice as King, lead him to follow his Scottish ex war reporter documentary maker, on an increasingly madcap adventure through the Balkans including hiding in disguise as a female folk singer, judging local village yogurt, and one very heavy night of drinking homemade liquor, in a spiraling series of events to evade his Turkish security team that becomes almost farcical by the end.

On his journey, Nicholas connects with local people and is impressed with the simple happiness found by people living hard lives. This turns up some solid inspirational quotes, from the thought-provoking, “if you have an ‘if’ then you’re already without happiness – we live without the if,” to the silly, when the King asks a small town mayor why he’s barefoot, “well my feet are very far from my head so I don’t have to think about them.”

While the film makes a lovely point with this, it does get a bit heavy-handed and self aware at times, and the pace drags a little in the middle of some of these drawn out reflections and travel sequences. The surprisingly fresh humour keeps things ticking along though, and the small ensemble cast give compelling performances. In particular Lucie Debay is excellent, with a strong presence and some perfectly expressive looks direct to camera. In fact, there are several perfectly timed deadpan looks to camera. If you like a good look to camera, this is the film for you. There are also some endearing turns from the people they meet along the way, especially Nina Nikolina who shares a touching moment with Nicholas. It’s also interesting seeing a Balkan’s perspective on Europe, and a window into small village rural society there – surprisingly different from the Europe it so closely borders.

The film leaves many of its key deliberations unresolved, offering not much more than reflection, a kind of meandering tackling of many of life’s big questions. The subjects feel very current though and it’s good to see the very topical state of unity within the EU addressed in film, and with such warmth and humour.



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