Living as we do in a post-Mueller Report kind of world, you’d have to be pretty disingenuous to say that there aren’t people who enter politics with a goal of protecting themselves. Sure, there are obviously politicians who put their constituents ahead of the party, but like most careers, it can’t be said of everyone. Spain appears to be a country caught up in a continuous struggle with political corruption, and one that makes up the narrative of The Realm (titled El Reino in Spain) from director Rodrigo Sorogoyen (May God Save Us).
Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) is the Vice Secretary for an unnamed political party, which is neither shown as being left or right on the spectrum. When we first meet him, he’s sharing expensive food and drink with his colleagues as they laugh and joke about recent work they’ve done in the shadows. This brashness echoes throughout Manuel’s working day as well, at one point being seen to advise a fellow worker on the best way to destroy illicit documents. Unfortunately for Manuel and his party, someone didn’t do their due diligence and evidence soon surfaces of their cheeky backhanders and dodgy land development deals.
Making its way to the news, the story has the potential to drag everyone down, and yet the Party is refusing to let that happen. Manuel is soon fitted up as the mastermind behind this latest piece of corruption, going so far as to edit documents so fingers can comfortably be pointed his way. Manuel is left fighting for his career and his life. Before you realise it, The Realm has pulled an expert 180 and turned an utterly disreputable human being into the hero of the hour.
That’s probably being a bit overzealous, but there’s no doubt you will find yourself cheering Manuel on as he breaks into colleagues’ houses whilst they’re away, lie to their families and his own, and do unspeakable things with a fountain pen like he’s John Wick. You’ll do this, even knowing Manuel is just as bad as everyone he’s up against. He’s not trying to prove his innocence as so much as he’s trying to prove he’s a tiny bit more innocent than everyone else.
Refusing to hint at where Manuel’s political party lies is smart move. Without the preconceived notions of how you view someone if they’re on the right or left, you can only focus on Manuel’s power and corruption. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, after all. In one of the film’s quieter moments – of which there aren’t many – Manuel, standing in a café, watches a customer realise they’ve been given too much change and slyly sneaking out. This acts as Manuel’s justification of everything. Ordinary people cheat others all the time. The only difference for him is that he got caught. Come the third act, he has all but set in motion a policy of scorched earth – and you will still wave your flag for him from the sideline.
With the camera never leaving his side, de la Torre is cracking as the politician clinging on to an ever-shrinking ledge. His descent into absolute panic is echoed by how the film chooses to follow him. Starting off with a smooth transition from a beach, we follow Manuel to his table as he breaks bread with his friends. Before The Realm is over, the EDM-tinged soundtrack is pumping and Manuel is frantically tearing down Spain’s dark country lanes. Set over several weeks, The Realm feels like we’re watching his fall in real time. It’s pulse-raising and not what you’d expect from a film ostensibly set around – ahem – land development. Put simply, The Realm is riveting stuff and worthy of a place on any best of 2019 list.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘The Realm’ opened in Australian cinemas on May 16.