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Night of the Kings review – intense and gripping story about stories

An Ivory Coast prison becomes the setting for a tale within a tale in this atmospheric drama from writer-director Philippe Lacôte

Philippe Lacôte is Ivory Coast’s most high-profile filmmaker. Watching Night of the Kings, it isn’t difficult to see why. The writer-director’s intense follow-up to 2014's Run is one of the most satisfying films to land in UK cinemas this summer, a glimpse inside an African mega-prison that uses storytelling and physical theatre to interrogate its surroundings.

A young man who we come to know as Roman (Bakary Koné) is thrown into Abidjan's La MACA prison, a notoriously violent hole that is effectively a city within a city. In MACA, there are no prison guards, just soldiers on the other side of the impossible walls waiting to launch grenades at any who attempt to escape. Lacôte and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille shoot the location like a Borgesian labyrinth, emphasising the dead ends, empty rooms, and gravelly textures of walls that shine with sweaty condensation.

Within this nightmarish setup, MACA has its own hierarchy. Blackbeard, the towering king of the prison (Steve Tientcheu), looms over the other inmates even as cancer is clearly getting the better of him. Aided by an oxygen mask that shows his grip on the system to be slipping, he compels Roman to tell the mob of inmates stories that last all night long, or perish to the crowd.

While a power struggle within the prison walls moves the story along, Lacôte’s propulsive style – which builds the stakes across a number of storytelling sequences – makes Night of the Kings into gripping viewing. As Roman regales his tall tale, the other inmates begin acting it out. The camera moves in time with these incredibly physical performances, which ground Roman’s mythic story of King Zama into something tangible. One of these performers is the legendary French actor Denis Lavant, who, in full vagrant garb, mopes around the prison with a chicken on his shoulder. He lends a welcome if unnecessary touch of sophistication to proceedings, co-signing the physicality by virtue of his performances in the likes of Beau Travail.

Night of the Kings has a pleasing if generic plot arc, but is somewhat undone by Lacôte’s choice to continually cut away from the prison to illustrate Koné’s stories. These scenes, designed to bring humanity to Roman and explain some of the wider political context, only serve to sentimentalise his plight, gilded with a patronising, fairy tale tone. Yet, between its fabulous melding of glossy photography and expert choreography, and the gripping caverns of its setting, Night of the Kings remains consistently effective and broadly appealing.

Night of the Kings is in cinemas from 23 July.

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