The King Is Alive

The King Is Alive


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

A desert is less hospitable than an uninhabited island, but if William Golding had written Lord Of The Flies for grown-ups, it might have been this.

Ten tourists on a bus in Africa end up in an abandoned mining town because their driver doesn't know the way and his compass has stuck and there's no more gas in the tank.

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At first, they are full of ideas. Jack (Miles Anderson) takes charge, explains the five rules of survival, such as water conservation, food supply and keeping up morale, before striding off across the dunes to find help. Luckily for them, there are crates of tinned carrots in a shed and they celebrate with a party, in which Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) dances like a teenager, while the others get drunk.

Slowly, relationships degrade and personalities expose their weakness. Charles (David Calder) wears a blazer and tie and looks down on the others as American-and-vulgar, foreign-and-inferior or related: his son, Paul (Chris Walker), is a Northern yob with a mousy wife and an exaggerated opinion of his own superiority.

Ray (Bruce Davison) is weak. His wife, Liz (Janet McTeer), taunts him with sexual jibes. She calls herself a bitch ("Believe me, honey, I know the magnetic power of tits") and acts out the role with a vengeance, afraid of the distance between acceptable danger and the forces of this alien land.

The loner looks like Willie Nelson, without a pony tail. His name is Henry (David Bradley) and he's an actor, or used to be, before moving to Los Angeles. Now he writes, takes notes, keeps an oral diary. He persuades the others to learn parts for King Lear.

It keeps them busy and encourages interaction. Catherine (Romane Bohringer), the French girl, is intrigued. Henry's intellectual distance and moral integrity attracts her, before heat and dust fill the spaces in her mind.

The breakdown of social order tears at the fabric of self-control. Gina, the Californian flower child, overgrown and untended, seeks excitement like a junkie. Charles lusts after her. Henry admires the untamed spirit.

Ray watches helpless as Liz flirts with their African driver (Peter Kubheka), silent in his impotence like a shrimp. Days pass into weeks. Rehearsals continue - Shakespeare in the sand - as madness creeps closer.

Kristian Levring is one of the founders of Dogme 95, the Danish filmmakers' collective that includes Lars Von Trier (Breaking The Waves). This is their fourth film, after Festen, The Idiots and Mifune, and the most powerful. The strict rules of engagement - handheld cameras, no artificial lighting, no constructed sets, etc - suit the location perfectly.

The script, which was partly improvised, is unsentimental and fierce. Emotion strips to the bone. Honesty cuts rough and dignity feels compromised to a point where Henry muses, "Is man no more than this?"

The acting has an intensity that sharpens nerves. Jason Leigh and McTeer are pitiless and profound. Bradley and Davison reach moments of unexpected insight and Calder has never touched the void, as he does here, with such self-deprecation.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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The social order starts to break down after bus travellers become stranded.
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Director: Kristian Levring

Writer: Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring: David Bradely, Janet McTeer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Romane Bohringer, Bruce Davison, Miles Anderson, David Calder, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kuene

Year: 2000

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: Denmark


EIFF 2000

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