Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: The Kingdom (Part 1)

By Orrin Grey

The Kingdom(1994). Directors: Lars von Trier & Morten Arnfred. Cast: Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes and Udo Kier. Country: Denmark.

Ever since I first started doing these columns, I’ve been planning to watch The Kingdom for them. Unfortunately, it’s a little on the long side, being a TV miniseries (actually two of them), so it’s gotten put on the backburner for a while now. Events have conspired, however, to change my schedule around a bit in November and December, and at the same time, both seasons of The Kingdom showed up on Netflix to watch instantly. So, I took it as a sign.

Over November and December, the format of my columns is going to change somewhat. Instead of two columns per month on two different movies, you’re going to get one long column per month. This first one will deal with the first season of The Kingdom and next month, I’ll talk about the second season.

I first heard about The Kingdom years ago, when I was first working in a video store, before Stephen King made his American miniseries adaptation Kingdom Hospital. (On a tangent, I hear that Kingdom Hospital wasn’t all that good, though I haven’t seen it. That said, I also hear that it features a giant anteater that stands in for the Grim Reaper, so, y’know, I may have to see it one of these days.) I heard that it was really good, and the cover looked intriguing, but, again, it was long and I never got around to watching it.

Sitting down to watch it, I had prepared myself for weirdness, but mostly the wrong kind. I had expected a lot of supernatural creepiness and certainly, there is some supernatural creepiness to be found, but more than anything, The Kingdom is a character drama, like an incredibly dysfunctional version of E.R. (Now with added ghosts!)

Like any good miniseries, The Kingdom follows multiple characters and innumerable subplots, sometimes picking them up and sometimes losing them, sometimes having them cross paths and sometimes terminating them in unexpected places. It starts out slow, with almost nothing in the way of the supernatural in the entire first installment, but, as director Lars von Trier says in the first of his outro segments where he talks to you over the closing credits, things heat up from there.

Even when the supernatural ratchets up to its highest settings, though, it takes a back seat to the characters, so it’s good that they’re pretty much unfailingly watchable. You can definitely see why Stephen King took an interest in the series, as a lot of the characters feel like figures straight out of a King novel. The spiritualist hypochondriac Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) and her long-suffering son, the good doctor who lives in the basement of the hospital and trades in black-market goods and secrets, and the two dishwashers with Down’s Syndrome, who act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the events as they transpire without directly being involved in them.

Maybe the most compelling character, though, and certainly one of the ones the most time is spent focused on, is Swedish doctor Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), a terrible, officious, petty man who is nonetheless endlessly interesting to watch, brought to life beautifully by Jaregard – a constant source of the show’s humour and, more occasionally, its pathos. He also manages to pull off one of the most bastardly things I’ve ever seen any character do in the last episode, as the events in the hospital begin to come apart at the seams.

It wouldn’t do to try to summarize all of The Kingdom‘s many plots, but I’ll touch on a few. The main supernatural plot revolves around the ghost of a girl, who died in the hospital years ago, and Mrs. Drusse’s attempts to lay the ghost to rest, although, of course, things feel like they’re much, much bigger than that. Meanwhile, a pregnant doctor learns that her baby is developing incredibly rapidly, a medical student attempts to seduce a nurse at the sleep laboratory, a pathologist has a cancerous liver transplanted into himself in order to study it, and Stig Helmer tries to cover up a botched operation that left a little girl in a vegetative state. A severed head goes missing, bodies are found in vats, secret societies approve illicit surgeries, and trysts are interrupted.

Everything in The Kingdom is filmed in sepia tones with handheld cameras. It doesn’t quite follow von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules, but it is certainly in that vein. Though there’s not a surfeit of supernatural phenomena on display, the verite style of the proceedings and the character-oriented tone of the series lend weight to those that do show up.

The answers to several of the show’s mysteries are revealed by the end of the first season, but for every question that’s answered, even more rear their heads and the last episode ends on a cliffhanger just as precarious as any of the ones preceding it. Fortunately, there’s a second season, though I’m told it doesn’t end in a place that’s much more solid. Still, I guess we’ll find out next month!

The Kingdom can be found through Amazon.com.