Monday, 12 March 2012

Entering Lars von Trier's The Kingdom

Amid justified excitement about political drama Borgen and two series of The Killing it's been overlooked that 18 years ago producer Danmarks Radio was behind another landmark series, directed by one of contemporary cinema's most reliable directors. Lars von Trier created horror drama The Kingdom (Riget) after securing his reputation with breakout feature Europa (1991).

The series could take its cue from a line in William Blake's poem Vala: 'The dark religions are departed and sweet science reigns.' Von Trier peoples his technologically advanced hospital, the Kingdom, with eccentrics and ghosts. Malingering spiritualist Mrs Drusse is the first to notice the cries of a young girl, and then there's the ghostly ambulance that calls in at night from another time...

As in The Killing, there is a nod to that foreign neighbour, Sweden, in the form of pompous consultant neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (a career-defining portrayal from Ernst-Hugo Järegård), whose cry goes up in each episode: 'Danish scum!' He is caught between cunning junior registrar Hook and the management speak of Professor Moesgaard, a role that runs to parallel to that of Colonel Potter in one of the greatest TV series ever, M*A*S*H. Helmer can only console himself with a litany of Swedish greatness: Tetra Pak, Björn Borg, Volvo...

The eight episodes of The Kingdom, split over two series, are steeped in a sepia of rust and blood - von Trier deliberately deteriorated the condition of the film stock as far as possible. The chorus is provided by two hospital dishwashers, played by actors with Down syndrome, and there are moments that cause a cold wash to come over you. There is startling imagery, including floating pavements and other moments reminiscent of Europa - the direction is never less than assured throughout.

There are moments, too, that presage Antichrist (2009), while elsewhere there are elements of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011), the familiar tropes of hospital drama (this ran concurrently with yet another great US TV series, ER) and even jokey nods to Ghostbusters (1984). Amid the grotesquerie and high comedy there may even be moments presaging Swedish director Roy Andersson, while the corridors - we're told the hospital has 30km of passageways - are all David Lynch.

There is, also, obsessed researcher Dr Bondo, played by Baard Owe, who stars as the wholly different lead in Bent Hamer's lovely O'Horten (2007). German actor Udo Kier, who appears in a host of von Trier's work, here makes the all-time great screen entrance. He had previously made a name for himself for campy turns on Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), and he has a greater role in 1997's second series - what is the relationship between his Little Brother and the Little Father of last year's magnificent Melancholia?

By now both the humour and the focus are broader, potentially to the detriment of The Kingdom II and, like many long series, it appears to lose its way - the total time runs to something like nine-and-a-half hours, so that's a good use of a weekend. In 2004, the series was picked up by horror maestro Stephen King for Kingdom Hospital, starring Andrew McCarthy and Bruce Davison.

They will have missed one of the highlights of the Danish original, which is von Trier's closing skit following every episode. In the mould of a mischievous Alfred Hitchcock, each time he sketches the sign of the cross, followed by the devil's horns, and reminds us all to 'take the good with the evil.'

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