Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Be Prepared to Take the Good with the Evil...": The Kingdom (Riget) 1994-1995

Take a blender.  Add a distillation of hospital dramas.  Dump in a liberal helping of Twin Peaks, but enhance it with an extra dose of quirky humor.  Pour directly from a bottle of spirits (clamp the lid down quickly so they don’t escape).  Blend well, and you might get a rough approximation of The Kingdom (Riget), Lars von Trier’s eight-episode miniseries for Danish television.  However, The Kingdom is a unique concoction, hard to describe or replicate (although Stephen King adapted The Kingdom for American television as Kingdom Hospital,  which I haven’t seen but apparently stayed fairly true to the original).

Centered on Copenhagen's Rigshospitalet, the fictional Kingdom is a sepia-toned labyrinth full of ghosts and demons.  Built, according to the introduction, on the ancient “bleaching grounds”, it is stocked with ghostly ambulances, spirits crying in the elevator shafts, and the menacing shade of Udo Kier.

Like any good hospital drama, The Kingdom has an ensemble cast of patients, doctors, and support staff – they are just a little quirkier than most.  The Swedish chief of neurosurgery (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) hates his Danish coworkers, frequently shouting his catchphrase “Danish scum!”  His arch-rival, Jørgen (Søren Pilmark), works the system from his lair in the basement, and is not above a little blackmail to get his way.  The medium Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) keeps finding ways to get herself admitted to commune with the unquiet dead.  Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe) lusts after a patient’s liver tumor, while Dr. Petersen (Birgette Raaberg) experiences an unusual pregnancy.  Two dishwashers with Down Syndrome (Vita Jensen and Morten Leffers) make cryptic comments on the supernatural goings-on.  Lurking behind them all are the ghost girl Mary (Annevig Ebbe) and the ominous Age Krüger (Udo Kier).  Despite the short duration of the series, viewers get to know them all through a variety of bizarre subplots, and the acting and script make even the smallest role engaging.

The first series has its share of chills, but is also very funny.  The final episode ends with an attempted exorcism and a difficult childbirth; in both, horror and humor combine.  The second series is weaker, focusing more on the quirky humor of the characters and less on the horror.  Like the first season, there’s a cliffhanger ending, but sadly, a planned third season never came to fruition since several of the major actors died.

With The Kingdom, Lars von Trier presents a unique series, unclassifiable and highly entertaining. 


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