A stiff Belgian monarch takes an unexpected road trip across Europe in this poker-faced mockumentary.
In a trailer for the BBC News Channel’s film programme, Mark Kermode riffs on his verdicts on a variety of genres: for ‘Mockumentary’ he asks “Is it as good as SPINAL TAP? No…” It’s easy to see why nothing matches up to that film, as its mixture of deadpan acting and absolute seriousness and self-belief in the face of completely ridiculous situations is very hard to pull off. But KING OF THE BELGIANS has a pretty good try and for the most part succeeds.
The story is based by legitimate documentary-makers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth on an incident in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, its vast clouds of ash closing international airspace. Among those grounded was the President of Estonia, who was forced to make his improvised way home from Turkey across the Balkans. In this fictionalised instance it is Belgian King Nicolas III (Peter Van Den Begin)—uptight, unworldly and under the thumb of his overbearing Queen—whose unwilling attendance in Istanbul at a supremely dull trade fair is curtailed by the news that the French part of Belgium, Wallonia, has seceded from the rest of the country, at the exact moment that a solar storm prevents any air travel. Attended by his equally stiff Chief of Protocol Ludovic (Bruno Georis), his starchy Head of Press Relations Louise (Lucie Debay) and more mischievous valet Carlos (Titus de Voodgt), Nicolas decides to go back, against the advice of the frankly threatening head of Turkish security.
A genial road movie, sure-footed in its handling of mismatched characters…
Luckily a fixer is on hand in the shape of Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen), a blowsy film-maker (with a touch of Ken Russell-in-later-years) hired by the Queen to make a flattering and uncontroversial documentary about Nicolas. Lloyd has or can make contacts everywhere and the royal entourage escapes Turkey in drag on a tour bus belonging to folk-singers The Black Sea Sirens. Now pursued by the Turkish authorities, the party makes its stumbling progress across the Balkan states, taking in a village yogurt contest, a former Serbian sniper, and a helpful bunch of Bulgarian golems last seen in TONI ERDMANN—these set-pieces all helping to unbend Nicolas’s character and undermine Ludovic’s idea of monarchy as representing ‘the ultimate expression of dignity, grace and grand ideas’.
Though the Black Sea Sirens scene momentarily threatens to topple KING OF THE BELGIANS over into slapstick, it soon settles down as a genial road movie, sure-footed in its handling of mismatched characters in the manner, say, of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in MIDNIGHT RUN. And there are many subtle comic touches along the way: the Black Sea Sirens’ song is noisily interrupted by an irate mother, insisting they perform more traditional material. After the King insists on taking the wheel of an ambulance—one of many ramshackle vehicles used to get the party across Europe—the film cuts to show the ambulance upended in a ditch. An easy funny moment—except it’s then revealed that Nicolas has swerved to avoid a turtle crossing the road, and is thus a useful character moment. Just as with the revered SPINAL TAP, by the end of KING OF THE BELGIANS, you care.