The King Is Alive

The fourth of the official Danish "Dogme 95" films - where the director is to adhere to a cinematic "vow of chastity" that includes no artificial lighting, post-production soundwork, non-handheld camera, and so on - and the first in English (the cast is mostly British unknowns and American semi-knowns including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Bruce Davison, and the late Brion James, looking indeed very close to death here), Levring's psychodrama could be written off entirely as a pretentious exercise if it weren't for the gritty immediacy inherent in the Dogma style and the earnest - if variable - performances of its cast.

A busload of tourists is stranded in the middle of an African desert, seeking shelter in an abandoned mining town as they await help that may or may not ever come. As the group becomes literally bored out of their minds, the crusty old British actor among them begins transcribing Shakespeare's King Lear from memory, suggesting to his fellow castaways that they might as well put on the play. Their reactions to his idea are mixed - to say the least.

However, though this would seem the central axis of the story, ultimately it comes off as just an artsy, mildly interesting subplot. The characters are too busy breaking up, breaking down, lusting for each other, and screaming. Which is the main problem with The King Is Alive: it neglects to establish any of its characters, or their relationships to each other, before it tears them apart. So we're left rather coldly observing these unlikeable souls' random acts of cruelty and madness, without the benefit of having been introduced to them first as actual people.

Levring does deserve some credit for his exotic location (and its naturally beautiful light), as it makes a great case for shooting on digital video: I found the quality of the projected film transfer to be nearly as good as if it were shot on 35mm. But that's just a technical note. If you want to see a Dogma film, check out the far superior The Celebration.