Jul 13, 2011

DVD Review: The Kingdom: Series 1 [18]

This review is by Contributing editor and E-Film Blog head honcho Michael Ewins

Have you ever wondered what happens to the patients in TV hospitals? If shows like Casualty, Scrubs and E.R. are to be believed then hospitals are places where doctors, surgeons and nurses hang out for quirky meet-cutes and primetime melodramatics, and patients are merely a day-to-day obstacle. I doubt that these are fair representations of hospital life, or are even trying to be, but those wondering about the patients in The Kingdom, Lars von Trier's cult series which ran for two seasons between 1994 - 1997, will find enough bloody mayhem to wish they'd never asked...

Right off the bat I'll make one thing clear: it's a difficult watch. Not just because the series is terminally protracted, thoroughly complex and deeply depressing, but also because of the muddied, sepia-inflected aesthetic which looks like it's been dug up from an Argentinean archive (bonus points if you get the reference). Fans of von Trier will be instantly at home with the look of the series, as it falls somewhere between The Element Of Crime (1984) and Idioterne (1998), recalling Tarkovsky as much as it does a series of home videos created by the characters in Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers (2009). The aesthetic does serve a specific purpose though, in that it adds a level of realism to the increasingly disturbing events, and enhances the dread-soaked atmosphere. For those unacquainted with the Danish provocateur, however, it may just feel like drudging through deathly treacle, and its ugliness will be off-putting.

Each episode opens on a wooden plaque reading 'THE KINGDOM', before a torrent of blood breaks through and gushes toward the screen, recalling that classic elevator scene in Kubrick's The Shining (1980). From here we explode into a none-more-90's title sequence which is about as tongue-in-cheek as the epilogue to each episode, delivered by a suited von Trier who can't decide whether to be devilishly sly or annoyingly condescending. Either way these moments always end with von Trier asking us to return to The Kingdom, where we'll need to take "the Good with the Evil", and instantly we question how seriously anyone is taking this story.

Ah, the story. It's far too complicated to fully synopsize here, but I'll give it a go. Each episode begins with a beautiful prologue detailing how The Kingdom hospital came to be built on the site of "bleaching ponds" - we always end on the same shot of hands rising from the damp ground, as if to suggest the reawakening of dead souls. Head neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) has recently been re-appointed to The Kingdom from a position he held in Sweden, and his plot arc follows the repercussions of a failed operation on a girl named Mona, who has become disabled from a mysterious error which he wants to keep hidden. While he clashes with the hospital staff and is inducted into the hospital's mysterious cult, The Brotherhood, a spiritual woman named Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) is admitted to the ward. She's not really ill, but senses the spirit of a restless young girl in the hospital, whose fate may have been murderous. Perhaps the best way of summarizing the show is to describe it as the Danish Twin Peaks, for there are great tonal similarities.

If you invest in The Kingdom from the beginning then you'll be richly rewarded. Series One consists of four episodes, totalling 300 minutes, and three-quarters of that time is dedicated to character development. The pace is incredibly slow but I appreciated the time von Trier allowed us with each character, and you'll be glad for it too by the time the final half hour rolls around, which is absolutely off-the-rails bonkers and demands a certain level of sacrifice by the viewer. What allows you to make this sacrifice is the quality of the writing and acting. Every character is fully rounded and given an engaging mystery, and you'll always be questioning their motives, which gives every scene a certain level of unpredictability. There's also a great deal of variety to each episode as it flits between austere drama and full-on horror, with the majority of time spent in dank corridors, misty locales and elevator shafts.

But what I loved most of all, perhaps, was the show's sense of humour. von Trier has always been an antic-loving provocateur, as proven by the orgy scene in Idioterne and the talking fox in Antichrist (2009). The Kingdom has an incredibly subtle streak of dark humour, which is best personified by an on-going gag about a missing head, and certainly its owner is warped to the point of uncomfortable hilarity. von Trier also makes a peculiar leap into full-on sitcom for the show's finale, as a tour of the hospital turns into a demented set-piece which has to be seen to be believed, and could only involve Udo Kier. I don't quite know what to make of it, but I know I can't wait for Series Two.

All extras will be reviewed along with Series Two.

If you'd like to buy the complete boxset of Series 1 and 2 of The Kingdom, and help 24FPS out at the same time, please use the link below. Thanks.

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