Lars Von Trier made The Kingdom between 1994 and 1997, and while some may be familiar with the movie edits taken from the two series, the full-length story has been a little more elusive.
Set in Denmark’s biggest hospital, the show is a Twin Peaks-style mix of soap opera and weirdness, the latter element steadily increasing as the story progresses. The hospital, we are informed, was built on the site of ‘bleaching ponds’ and is now slowly crumbling, both physically and morally, as ghosts start to haunt the building.
Each of the lead characters has his or her own story – Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) is a Swedish surgeon how finds himself in a country he hates (the digs at the relationship between Sweden and Denmark are clearly a local joke, though most people will recognise parallels with their own national neighbours) and facing a malpractice lawsuit after a botched operation has left a child brain-dead – the evidence for which he is desperate to cover up; Hook (Soren Pilmark) is equally determined to find the evidence for his own purposes – he runs a black market medical supply service, as well as dabbling in drug dealing and blackmail; Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) is an elderly psychic determined to help the ghosts, forcing her orderly son Bulder (Jens Okking) to help; Consultant Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) is having a crisis of confidence, while his medical student son (Peter Mygind) is regretting stealing a corpse’s head as a prank; and Bondo (Baard Owe) is trying to grow a record-breaking tumour inside his own body. Meanwhile, a Greek Chorus of two kitchen workers with Downs Syndrome pass comment and set up future events, and Von Trier himself pops up during the closing credits to comment on what has been happening and remind us to take ‘the good with the evil’.
The supernatural elements are introduced slowly, but by the end of the first series (which closes on a moment of outrage to match any of Von Trier’s more controversial movies), it’s getting very strange, and the second series gets much more bizarre, as Udo Keir turns up as a mutated baby that grows too quickly for its own body to handle – the result of the mother, Judith (Birgitte Raaberg) having been impregnated by a ghost (also Keir). The mutant ‘baby’ is both laughably ridiculous and rather creepy, and this mix of absurdity and genuine horror permeates throughout the show. The ghost elements start to give way to Satanism and the whole story becomes odder and odder, in a rather wonderful way.
Shot in muted colours (those of you still sexually aroused by HD will be shocked by the deliberate grain here) and with hand-held cameras, the show looks unlike anything you’ve seen on TV before, and with some seriously graphic moments (including gruesome brain surgery), it’ll be a challenge for many viewers. But if you are open to it, this is a great show – gripping, often funny, genuinely scary and always very strange – much like the Twin Peaks that inspired it, in fact.
Unfortunately, it ends with multiple story threads unfinished – a third season was planned, but the deaths of a few cast members during the delay in production effectively scuppered those plans. But if you can put up with knowing that the story will not be neatly wrapped up after nine hours of viewing, then this is well worth checking out, even if you are not normally a Von Trier fan.