The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - NIGHT OF THE KINGS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - NIGHT OF THE KINGS

night of the kings review
A new arrival at a prison is assigned the role of storyteller.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Philippe Lacôte

Starring: Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Denis Lavant, Abdoul Karim Konaté

night of the kings poster

There are few more invaluable resources than a prison library. Criminals who wouldn't dream of picking up a book on the outside often become avid readers behind bars. What else is there to do to while away the time? Plus a good story can take you out of your situation, and if your situation happens to be doing porridge in a 6x8 cell you need all the escapism you can get.

Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte's second feature, Night of the Kings, takes place in a prison that has no library. Actually, the Maca, a sprawling hellhole on the outskirts of Abidjan, doesn't have much of anything. There are barely any cells in this place, and even less beds. It doesn't have many guards either as it's pretty much run by the inmates. Well, I guess that's one way of saving the taxpayer a few quid.

night of the kings review

The ruler of the Maca at any given time is a senior inmate known as the Dangoro. The prison's rules state that should the Dangoro fall ill he must take his life and allow a successor to ascend to the throne. The current Dangoro, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is in just such a predicament. He's not ready to give in just yet though, and so in an attempt to gain an extra day he invokes an old rule that allows him to stay alive while a storyteller appointed by the Dangoro (known as a Roman) spins a yarn on the night when a red moon rises.

Luckily for Blackbeard, tonight is such a night. It's not so lucky for the young man selected to be Blackbeard's Roman (Bakary Koné). The fresh-faced Roman agrees to his task, only to later learn that custom dictates he be executed when his storytelling ends.

night of the kings review

With this setup in place, the Roman's filibustering takes over as Lacôte's film blends magic-realism and the West African Griot storytelling tradition. Like a schoolboy trying to hit the word count designated by his English teacher, the Roman desperately stretches out his story, beginning as a kitchen sink tale from his own sorry life on the streets but evolving to take in mythical figures from Ivorian history.

As the Roman tells his tales, Lacôte introduces flashbacks to the real events he's recounting, along with enactments of the mythical stories he's making up on the fly. Meanwhile on the prison floor, the Roman's story is given background colour by inmates who perform interpretive dance moves and spark up impromptu sing-songs. Meanwhile the threat of violence lingers as various factions of the prison prepare to make a power grab.

Night of the Kings is one of the most acclaimed movies of the past year but I have to confess it never held me in its thrall as much as I expected. For a start, the story told by the Roman just isn't very interesting or innovative. I'm willing to accept the argument that that's the point, that the Roman isn't a natural storyteller, but when at least half of the movie is devoted to his storytelling, Night of the Kings feels leaden in places.

night of the kings review

More interesting is the world this story takes place in. The Maca is a fascinating locale, populated by characters we glimpse but frustratingly never really get to know. I'd rather watch a movie about the prison's one transsexual, who is treated as a woman by the rest of the inmates in ironically progressive and accepting fashion. Or a movie about the prison's one white inmate (Denis Lavant), who walks around with a chicken on his shoulder, likely feigning madness for his survival.

There's enough material in the Maca to fuel an entire Oz-style TV show, so it's frustrating that so much of Night of the Kings' running time is spent stretching out a thin and barely interesting story.

Night of the Kings
 is in UK/ROI cinemas and VOD from July 23rd.

2021 movie reviews