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by shahriar khan | may, 2001

The King Is Alive

A dark, disturbing movie which veers between tragedy and comedy in the manner of one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. The King is Alive, the fourth and latest offering from the producers of the Dogme manifesto tells the story of a group of feckless package-holiday tourists stranded in the Namibian desert. Their bus broken down and with nothing to sustain them except mouldy old tinned food and a little water and with no hope of imminent rescue, one of the party, old thesp Henry (David Bradley) hits upon the idea of staging a version of King Lear to keep up morale.

All the ingredients seem to be there: three young girls, a doddering old man, a couple of young bucks and any number of people who can play the Fool. Many powerful actors are in this piece and the casting is spot on, for whereas the cast excel in playing their various fractured protagonists it is these protagonists’ stumbling towards the unfamiliar roles they are asked to play in Lear that uncovers so much of what they and the play are all about. It is a film about role playing and how the parts we think we are playing in ‘real life’, and how the people we are drawn to are actually mistakes and mistaken. Everyone in the play seems suited to play a different role to the one they are assigned by the ‘director’ or by society.

The ‘limitations’ of the Dogme rules (no artificial light, no post-synching etc) work superbly in Levring’s favour here. The very graininess of his digital film (transferred and blown up to 32mm) is appropriate for the sandy arena in which the protagonists are immersed. The way shadows fall across the desert and its inhabitants as the sun sets and the way the light sources are so inadequate at night demonstrate just how difficult it is to ‘see’ anybody clearly — such a major theme in Shakespeare’s plays. There is a particularly brilliant scene where the camera rests on the nefarious Charles (David Calder) — one third of his face lit by firelight, the other, with its crags and crevasses masked by darkness.

The structure of the movie reflects Lear too, with people cast out into the wilderness epic treks through storms and the like and we get the sense, thanks to the almost tangibly organic sense of the way the movie is put together that the film-makers too are surprised by how much truth and power comes out of these forked beasts in front of the camera.
The ending is tragic, resonant with the sense of lost opportunities and a life lived in vain, like King Lear itself. The king is alive and kicking in this superb drama.

Director: Kristian Levring
Producers: Patricia Kruijer,Vibeke Windeløv
Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen and Kristian Levring
DOP: Jens Schlosser
Editor: Nicholas Wayman-Harris
Production Designer:
Costume Designer:
Cast includes: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Romane Bohringer, Janet McTeer, David Calder, David Bradley,
Production Company: A Dogme 95 Production
Distributor: Pathé
County: Denmark
Year: 2000
Length: 95 minutes

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