The Kingdom (1994)
Robert Winter on March 26, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Madman (Australia). Region 4, PAL 1.42:1 (Non-anamorphic). Danish DD 2.0. English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finish, Romanian, Portugese, Serbian Subtitles. 273 minutes
The Movie
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen, Soren Pilmark
Screenplay: Tómas Gislason, Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Music: Joachim Holbek
Country: Denmark
AKA: Riget
Imagine a melding of Carnivale and ER directed by David Lynch circa Eraserhead and this would come close to describing the experience of watching Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom.

Originally filmed as a four-part mini-series for Danish TV – episode titles being The Unheavenly Host, Thy Kingdom Come, A Foreign Body and The Living Dead The Kingdom's narrative revolves around the fictional micro-cosmic world of Copenhagen's high-tech Rigshospitalet's neurosurgical ward. While patients struggle with their terminal afflictions, corporate executives demand cost cuts, ambitious surgeons fight for power and fame, nurses fall in and out of love and menial staff gripe about the bureaucracy. However, all their lives are impacted on some level when the ghost of a young girl makes an appearance on the ward and a hypochondriac spiritualist slowly uncovers the apparition's identity and horrific past.

Riddled with phobias, which include a morbid fear of flying, Lars Von Trier is the stereotypical neurotic genius. His ability to draw out the dark, often pathetic side of human nature and cauterise it with the mundane is masterful. Take for example the character of Dr Bondo. He is so dedicated to his work that he has a cancerous liver transplanted into his body so he can bypass the legal constraints involved in organ donation and continue with his own research. But perhaps the most disturbing character in the series is the racist, socio-pathic neuro-surgeon Dr Helmer. Self-righteous, pompous and repulsive to the core, Dr Helmer confirms his vileness when he verbally insults and threatens a grieving mother after he botches an operation which leaves her daughter severely brain-damaged. The scene is unbelievable in its brutality. We feel the mother's pain as she alternates between wanting her child dead and the demand for justice.

But what makes the characters and their actions so tragic is that Von Trier normalises their behaviour within the sterile environment. Outside the hospital people like Drs Bongo and Helmer are freaks, deeply lonely individuals, but within the confines of the ward their actions are tolerated - their lives have meaning.

Once you're hooked by the highly engaging melodrama, then the intermittent gore and shocks is the red silk lining on the ebony coffin. The nasty imagery is relatively sparse, but when it does occur it's highly compelling and has razor-sharp impact. Yet more often than not, Von Trier takes delight in leading the viewer down a well-trodden path filled with anticipation and suspense then shatters expectations by mocking genre conventions. I dare you to predict the outcome a particular scene involving brain surgery, a head-drill, no anaesthetic and a hypnotist.

It will take more than one viewing to make a mental catalogue of the many key plot points presented throughout the series. Some are resolved, but a number are left hanging. Interestingly, the only characters who seem to offer any insight are the two enigmatic young people with Down's Syndrome who work as dishwashers in the hospital. They talk cryptically to each other using simple poetic language that serves as a narrative link to the next sequence of events.

With the four episodes spread over two discs, DVD viewers have the convenience of watching the series exactly how it was aired on Danish TV back in 1994. Between episodes, we even get Von Trier enticing us to return for the next installment. Proving a success domestically and garnering rave reviews internationally, Von Trier was given the green light to create The Kingdom II three years later to pick up where the first series left off.

Co-written by Stephen King and directed by Rose Red and Storm of the Century's Craig Baxley, an American re-tooling titled Kingdom Hospital aired to an indifferent public in 2004. While the series had its moments, it lacked the dark undercurrent and sly black humour which made Von Trier's original such a winner.
Shot on video and much of it with a hand-held camera, the orange-sepia toned print exhibits a lot of headache-inducing grain and softness. If you demand a crisp, sharply defined transfer then you'll curse Von Trier for his documentary-style realism.

Shadow detail isn't compromised too much by the softness and grain. In fact, logically and where it really counts, the special effects sequences are the only times when the print is crystal clear. This makes sense considering that often the apparitions can only be seen by those being targeted.
The predominantly front-centred Danish/Swedish-only 2.0 audio transfer is a disappointment. There are many times when creepy ambient sounds could have enhanced the visuals with a discerning 5.1 mix. The subwoofer even had the opportunity to rumble to life during the earthquake sequence, but alas remained silent.

The theme song by The Shiver, who sound like a bad fusion of Laibach and Rammstein, is really quite awful and more suited to a B-grade medieval fantasy adventure.
Extra Features
Kicking off the extras is a 24-minute Behind-the-Scenes featurette. Dressed like a dapper circus spruiker, Von Trier tries to convince us that he has "composed a bouquet for you of fun, chills and thrills. Hopefully a spellbinding bagatelle featuring a celebrated cast staged for your pleasure." However, what really follows is a series of fairly run-of-the-mill interview segments with a number of cast members, inter-cut with some on-set production footage.

Rather than a full commentary track director Lars Von Trier, scriptwriter Niels Vorsel and editor Molly Stensgaard offer some insights into the production and background of six key scenes.

Next up is a series of eight Outrageous Newspaper Commercials directed by Von Trier for the Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet. Seven of these star Ernst-Hugo Järegård (who played mean-bastard Dr Helmer), but the first one entitled Sauna is the R-rated version of the ad where a man is holding up a newspaper with his hard-on. If you've ever watched one of those "World's Sexiest Commercials" programming fillers shown regularly on TV then you will have seen this.

Rounding of the extras is the original theatrical trailer.
The Verdict
With its tense and at times monstrous collision of dark humour, the mystical, scientific rationality and the callousness of modern medical treatment, The Kingdom is a truly remarkable piece of fiction that respects and highlights the powerful nature of horror as a genre.
Movie Score
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