Sorry for the delay on last Friday’s Reruns From the Crypt. Had some personal matters intervene.
Rest assured, we’ll be back on track by this Friday, in the meantime, I give you this week’s belated entry.
One problem I had in starting this year’s project- where do you go after you discuss a series helmed by David Lynch, one of the most well known of the “strange” directors. After hunting around, the answer was clear: find another show overseen by a famous/infamous filmmaker. Luckily for me, this brought my attention to Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom.
Initially, I had planned to cover both seasons in a single go on this one. Upon doing more research, I had a change of heart. The fact that this season covered a mostly contained story, paired with the fact there were a good three years between the two seasons, made a case for taking each on their own.
Each episode of The Kingdom (or Riget, for those who like using original titles) is prefaced by an outline of the history of the series’s setting. Built on the site of old bleaching ponds, the hospital of Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen is, as the narrator details, a symbol of scientific triumph.
The name is even used in reference to the idea that science and reason have triumphed over older spiritual beliefs. This narrative, however, always ends with the ominous warning that the Kingdom is beginning to crumble, and something older is about to burst back through.
This narrative perfectly sums up the various storylines that occur over this series. Initially the supernatural elements of the show start off at the very lowest levels-the first episode begins with a phantom ambulance seen only by one of the hospital’s porters; later, the spirit of a dead girl is overheard by a new admission to the hospital (Kirsten Rolffes, who is probably the one character most open to the spiritual).
For much of the rest of the cast, the crumbling is a bit less spiritual, but they are nevertheless also plagued by the fact their seemingly ordered worlds are being undermined: an arrogant surgeon’s (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) carelessness on a procedure could utterly torpedo his career, an up and coming student’s (Peter Mygind) prank ends in a lost cadaver’s head and the threat of his expulsion if found, and another doctor’s (Søren Pilmark) relationship with a colleague is thrown into doubt as the series’ supernatural elements begin to gain prominence. All this as the hospital’s director (Holger Juul Hansen) tries to impress the higher-ups with his new budget changes.
Meanwhile, this is framed by an unusual touch- a variation of a Greek chorus care of a pair of the hospital’s dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers), both of whom have Down’s Syndrome. The two offer a sardonic commentary and touches of foreshadowing throughout the series. Alongside their efforts, each episode is capped off with a message by the director to the audience. For a man infamous for movies like Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia, von Trier is surprisingly charming here.
I will say this – if you’re going into this show expecting a constantly creepy scarefest, this isn’t going to be the series for you. Personally, I liked it, but I’ll also admit its style is definitely one that takes a while to get to the scares. The show stays true to what it promises in its opening narration – like the hospital itself, the seemingly ordered present finds itself being undermined by the past creeping out from the foundations to the surface.
While the ghost story is good (and also features an appearance from horror alumni Udo Kier) it’s largely on the fringes for the first two episodes of the first season’s four. Fortunately, the other storylines have enough material to keep one interested in the meantime, with Järegård’s plot holding the most interest at first. Probably the biggest surprise for me was, alongside the mystery, that the show also offers a fair amount of humor. It’s rarely ever gut-busting, but there’s a sort of dark undercurrent of humor running throughout the series that really keeps things moving along at a good pace.
The cast all hit a good balance that further adds to the material. Järegård is something of a love-to-hate character as Stig Helmer, the one Swede working on the board, a man who, besides his general arrogance, makes his disdain for the Danish known on a regular basis. Besides him, another standout is Rolffes as the spiritual Mrs. Drusse, particularly in her scenes with her skeptical son Bulder (Jens Okking), a porter at the hospital who becomes a reluctant aide in her quest to unravel the Kingdom’s mysteries.
Besides the slow buildup to the mystery, the show does have a few moments that may not work as well with some audiences. The use of hand-operated camera, for example, does a good job of immersing viewers in the setting of the series (particularly in sequences in the hospital’s lower hallways) but it can sometimes prove disorienting- most notably in a flashback in the first season’s finale which becomes hard to determine thanks to how shaky the camera work is at times.
Alongside that, there’s elements of the show’s Danish setting that could prove a bit confusing to English language viewers -moments when the show lapses between Danish and Swedish, as well as the running element of Helmer’s grief towards Danes. Finally, there’s the show’s tendency to not answer all of the questions it raises. Some of this works out in keeping one interested, but when you get to the end of the season, there are a lot of loose plot points that can be a bit irritating to not get closure on.
All in all though, it’s an interesting experiment of a series. It answers a lot of the key questions it introduces, tells a story that keeps one invested, and of course, delivers on the horror. In many cases it’s more a sense of creeping dread than an actual payoff, but the payoffs are there, and also a good part to keep invested for the next season (one particular example being probably one of the most horrifying renditions of birth this side of Cronenberg’s The Fly). The end result is one that, stylistically, may not be to everyone’s liking, but if you can get into its style – and you’ll know about that by the end of the first episode in any case – it’s a fascinating ghost story to give a watch to.
Again, sorry for the delay on this one. I’ll be back with the second season of The Kingdom this Friday to bring the eerie saga of the Rigshospitalet to its conclusion.
-Compelling ghost story narrative
-Some good narrative devices and casting help keep all the plotlines together
-Cultural and language barriers may make some parts confusing
-Hand-operated cameras occasionally disorienting in certain sequences