The Kingdom Review
The brilliance of Lars von Trier’s television serial The Kingdom was so clear from the outset, it bypassed television in both the UK and the USA and was granted a cinema release in its own right. In native Denmark, it is said the streets were empty each night of broadcast and roughly half the population tuned in to see each instalment. Never has the fantastic and the grotesque been so accessible, mainly because it’s never been presented in such an familiar, tried-and-tested context.
The opening credits tell us that the hospital - The Kingdom - was built on unsettled, spirit-infested marshland, which contain forces to powerful to lie dormant any longer. When the film's title card cracks and smashes open, allowing blood gushing out from behind, it's not hard to guess Something Bad is just around the corner.
It’s a hospital drama flowing over with the usual romances, staff clashes, blackmail plots and troublesome patients; in other words, juicy, often hilarious soap opera entertainment of the first degree. It is also an eerie, unsettling and, at times, downright terrifying supernatural mystery, filled with phantom ambulances which contain neither paramedics nor patients, the ghost of a little girl who haunts the corridors of the hospital and the most terrifying pregnancy since Rosemary’s Baby.
I’m loathe to give anything away (besides which, the many plot strands are so numerous and complicated, it would take me almost 1000 words, and you’d still be no closer to understanding just how gleefully enjoyable the series is), except to say there’s never a dull moment in the whole of four and a half hours and that’s not to say there are scenes in there simply to function as mood-establishing or character-establishing sequences. Anything that isn’t completely essential to moving the story on appears to have been jettisoned so the series certainly moves swiftly, but not so that any aspect feels undernourished or underdeveloped. Shot in Denmark’s real General State Hospital in Copenhagen with handheld cameras, in a way that pre-empts the Dogme-95 style of The Idiots and Breaking the Waves, the choppy cutting and vague camerawork gives the show a real hurtling urgency that doesn’t subside.
It’s one of the real joys of 90s television, a decade which produced far too few all-time classic shows. What many still consider to be Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, finally allowed to tell his stories in an evolving, extended, serial format, is a dazzling piece of filmmaking, giving lie to the idea that the longer it gets, the thinner the story is spread.
This DVD contains the five episode structure of the first series. Originally broadcast in four episodes totalling just over an hour each, the series was restructured for five episodes running about 50 minutes each. Each episode had an end credit sequence where Lars von Trier would come out in a tuxedo and bow tie, and ruminate, in the best possible humour, on the ideas and storylines present in the show. These amusing, but completely mood-destroying campy monologues have not been preserved in their entirety for this DVD – only two remain, for episodes two and five, at the ends of discs one and two respectively. Episodes one and two have been sandwiched together, as have three, four and five, to make two semi-feature-films (nicely integrated title cards and chapter stops still separate them into the original episode structure, though). Doubtless this will antagonise many of you, although I believe the Canadian 2-disc set contains all the outros, fully subtitled. Viewers might also be annoyed that five seconds was removed from all UK versions by the BBFC pertaining to some animal violence (which has not been reinstated for this release).
I’m simply going to give it half-marks, so people know what to expect, but, be warned, the horribly grainy, dirty, brown look of the show is entirely intentional. Shot on handheld 16mm, transferred onto video and edited there, then transferred back to 16mm and, for cinema exhibition, blown up to 35mm is not going to produce the prettiest of pictures. To be honest, you can’t really go wrong with how to present it on DVD – you make all kinds of dreadful mistakes all through the compression and authoring, and you’d still be hard pressed to tell the difference. However, the ICA have done a good enough job of presenting it here, with a decent bit-rate and compression – I assume.
However, there is some problems with the master – the final part of episode five looks as if the (I presume) digital beta videotape had sustained some magnetic damage, as there’s some flickering and annoyances on the picture that clearly aren’t from the original elements. It is fairly distracting, so be warned.
Clear, well-balanced, distortion-free stereo. Some of the dialogue is very slightly muffled, but given the Dogme-95-style on-the-hoof filming, this is hardly surprising. It’s quite acceptable over all, and there’s no hint that ICA have done anything to cock it up.
There are non-optional English subtitles provided.
On disc one there are two trailers for Kandahar and A One and a Two, both coming soon from ICA Projects.
There is also the wonderful documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, available on Criterion’s The Element of Crime. Just under an hour, it covers more ground in von Trier’s life and working methods and in more depth than you’d have thought possible, the list of interviewees (including lengthy contributions from von Trier himself) is impressive and the stories uncovered exceptional. A good deal of it is spent on von Trier’s early life and experiments with filmmaking both on an amateur level with his mother’s cine-cinema, and academically at film school, and a great deal of on-set footage during Breaking the Waves. It’s one of the best of its kind, and is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with non-optional subtitles. High marks for one extra, but what a feature!
There are approximately 10 unspecified chapter stops for each episode, with 51 in all over the five discs.
A wonderful series, presented on a middling disc from ICA, where the documentary is the true saving grace of the set. However, an acceptable substitute might be to buy the Canadian version from Seville, which, although with non-optional subtitles, contains the much-sought-after (though, in my opinion, far from essential) von Trier closing monologues, and buying Criterion’s disc of the very controversial The Element of Crime which also contains the fabulous documentary. In any case, it’s essential viewing.