Sunday, 1 April 2012
The Kingdom: I&II – Original Broadcast Edition
No stranger to controversy, Lars von Trier has been delighting, appalling and surprising cinema goers for well over twenty years. He pioneered the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, brought Bjork to the big screen and allowed his production company to produce hardcore porn. Mainstream success has not been easy to come by for von Trier, with even his biggest UK successes remaining largely ‘arthouse’. So it’s little wonder that his early career in Danish television has received little attention over here. But the release of a boxed set of supernatural hospital drama The Kingdom could be about to change that.
The Kingdom is a cutting-edge hospital staffed by an offbeat cast of characters, including a new-age director, an egotistical Swedish neurosurgeon and a reckless medical student. And their faith in science is tested as a series of supernatural episodes occurs: a ghostly young girl appears in a lift shaft; a phantom ambulance appears every night; an unnatural pregnancy affects one of the nurses and all the while a malingering patient attempts to communicate with those on the ‘other side’…
The opening credits create an instantaneous sense of intrigue. At odds with the modern hospital setting, the start of every episode features a prologue set in the misty and mysterious ‘bleaching pools’ upon which the hospital would later be built. A solemn voice narrates as the sepia toned action unfolds on screen, describing the ancient marshlands where cloth workers bleached their wares, enveloped by thick clouds of fog. It’s a simple enough scene, but slow pan of the camera and the deliberate movement of the workers on screen add certain gravity to proceedings. An air of menace and unpredictably is also evident as we are told that the building of the hospital was designed to help eradicate ignorance and superstition in favour of science. Clearly this will not be the case: the old world is literally breaking into the new.
Sadly, the impact of the credits as almost undone by the dreadful theme music which blares from the screen immediately aftermath. Perhaps a product of their time, they have not dated well at all. Like a mid-90s cop drama, they thud from the screen with the word ‘Kingdom’ repeated ad infinitum over cheesy background action. It’s woefully out of place in the midst of such an atmospherically spooky drama.
Thankfully, the director proves that he is capable of producing excellent credit sequences at the end of each episode. In an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock, von Trier himself appears as a presenter in dinner jacket and bow-tie as the end credits role to offer a summation of the plot and a hint at what will come in the next show. His language is quaint and antiquated as he poses rhetorical questions to the audience and occasionally mocks the actions of the characters. It’s completely unnecessary yet utterly charming – not only for von Trier’s determination to appear on the other side of the camera, but also for his geeky hand gestures, as he implores the audience to “be prepared to take the good with the evil.”
Just as The Kingdom is filed with ideas of good and evil, so it is filled with morally ambiguous (or often dubious) characters. Chief among these is Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He’s a man with a whole collection of enormous chips on his shoulders – not least his utter disdain for all things Danish. Despite that, he’s played with some charm by Järegård. His aged face manages to convey just enough rumpled dissatisfaction with his incompetent colleagues to convince you that his heart is in the right place – some of the time. Despite being a fierce critic of malingerers and timewasters, he has secrets and faults of his own – not least a malpractice case arising from a botched operation which left a young girl brain-damaged.
It’s testament to the excellent writing that The Kingdom’s characters are so well-developed. It would have been very easy to rely on clichéd stereotypes in a series such as this, but each character is given room to breathe and time to develop. Some, like Helmer, arrive fully formed, others, such as his nemesis Jørgen Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark) develop more steadily. Initially, he’s little more than a sniping pedant, but he reveals himself as being rather more warm-hearted and ‘resourceful’ than he seems.
Whether the same credit can be extended as far as Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) is less clear. She’s the malingerer in question, inventing reasons to stay in the hospital as an excuse to carry out her paranormal investigations. Initially, she seems easy to dismiss, but as the plot unfolds her snooping becomes increasingly credible. She, however, remains irritating. Despite that, Rolffes gives a brilliant performance as the irritating old woman. One scene in particular, as Drusse attempts to speak to a ghost is an acting masterclass. With only a candle flame foregrounded and her face in the background of the frame, Drusse asks yes/no questions of the spirit world. How the flame reacts to her questioning determines what answer she has received. It’s a beautifully lit and wonderfully acted monologue – and completely compelling.
There are a whole host of other fascinating characters engaged in all manner of hare-brained schemes and storylines. A Masonic lodge rules behind the scenes, the happy-clappy hospital director attempts to introduce his hapless methods of motivation and a medical student uses a severed head to seduce a nurse. With workplace drug-dealing, a doctor transplanting a cancerous liver into himself and a pair of Down’s Syndrome sufferers acting as a Greek chorus, it’s a wonder that the plot makes any sense whatsoever.
Somehow, however, it does. Von Trier has been extremely brave in throwing so many characters and so many story-strands into the mix from the very outset. Much of the success of the show lies in not underestimating its audience – each storyline is distinct and unusual enough to hold the attention and every character is interesting enough to sustain the interest. The hand-held camerawork also ensures that the viewer is constantly kept in the midst of the action. And if things ever do flag, an injection of humour is never far away.
The Kingdom is very funny – in a number of ways. There is out and out slapstick, humorous dialogue and enough absurd action to ensure that it appeals on numerous levels – and every episode contains an anti-Danish speech from Helmer (which often ends with him screaming “Danish scum” into the night sky). Often the more humorous scenes are effectively cut with the more supernatural elements to create a cohesive whole which never becomes bogged down in one particular element of the story.
Season one becomes increasingly interested in the supernatural elements of the story as it nears its conclusion, culminating in a series of cliff-hangers which are partly addressed as season two begins to unfold. It would be churlish to give too much away here about the happenings of the second series, but it’s fair to say that there are also plot points which remain unresolved as it ends. Sadly, they will remain that way. Following the climax to the series, both Ernst-Hugo Järegård and Kirsten Rolffes passed away. Shorn of arguably two of the most important characters, there was no way The Kingdom could continue and plans for a third series were shelved.
Despite the slightly unsatisfactory conclusion, The Kingdom is a simply brilliant series. It wears its influences on its sleeve proudly – clearly owing a debt to Twin Peaks and the X Files – features memorable characters and situations, and combines drama and comedy to great effect. Of course, it’s no surprise that a Danish series about the supernatural was never likely to be broadcast on TV in Britain. Instead, an inferior series (written by Steven King) attempted to replicate the appeal. Don’t bother with the remake – search out the original instead.