Synopsis: Acclaimed director Lars Von Trier delves into the world of the supernatural with the chilling series that inspired Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. At The Kingdom, Denmark’s most technologically advanced hospital, a number of otherworldly and uncanny events begin to occur, much to the dismay of its doctors and patients. A ghostly ambulance appears and disappears, the voice of a little girl calls to a patient in an elevator shaft and a pregnant doctor’s fetus begins growing at an alarming rate. At the urging of a spiritualist patient, the employees attempt to help the supernatural forces rest.
eyelights: quirky and creepy in a ‘Twin Peaks’ kind of way.
eyesores: the cheapness of the production. the loose writing.
Many years ago I was told that I should watch ‘Riget’ (translation: “The Kingdom”), by Lars Von Trier. I knew very little about it, but a friend said that it was a must-see. I kept it mind, if not exactly at the top of my list. But, when I stumbled upon a copy of the 1994 mini-series for the crazy sum of 2$ (by someone who no doubt had no idea what he was holding), I snatched it up right quick.
From that point, it only took about two years to watch it. For me, that’s pretty breezy.
‘Riget’ is set in Denmark at a hospital called The Kingdom, hence the series’ name. It was build upon old marshlands where people used to bleach clothes (the DVD translation may be off, because it’s not clear how they bleached in the bog) and, for reasons unknown, all sorts of peculiar and mysterious things are starting to take place in that hospital. To make things even more interesting, it is populated by a good dozen of subtly offbeat characters of all sorts.
The four-part mini-series, which clocks at a little over four hours and a half in length, takes its time introducing us to the characters and leading us into its strange journey. But, by the final episode, things have gotten sufficiently out of hand that all the characters are acting slightly wonky, out of character, as if possessed or disturbed by something in the hospital. The manifestations of their respective mental fragmentation go from amusing to threatening: seeing things, running around shooting rats, …etc.
If it sounds outrageous or absurd, it isn’t – at least not by conventional North American standards, anyway. I’m more likely to compare it to ‘Twin Peaks’ than anything else, if only because the world that Von Trier has created, much like David Lynch did five years prior, feels real in many ways – it’s just that you have to wonder what chemicals the locals have been pumping in their water supply, is all: many characters are strange enough to disconcert someone who isn’t quite used to their shenanigans.
Which leads me to the one intruder in the whole mix, Stig Helmer. He is an arrogant Swedish surgeon who has recently been transferred to The Kingdom under suspicious circumstances and longs to return to Sweden. A fierce nationalist, he frequently goes to the hospital’s rooftop and curses the Swedes – at least, at first, before he loses his patience with them and starts to insult them in person.
The man is the only one who is not used to the way the hospital is run, so he would normally be our anchor throughout the series. However, he is such a complete @$$hole that there is no way to relate to him; his ego is such that he looks down upon everyone in his path, including his girlfriend. The abuse that he shovels at everyone is quite difficult to take, even when it’s understandable that lodge meetings, insubordination, team-building exercises, incompetence and general mischief would take their toll on most professionals; he is a total d!ck.
The most enjoyable character, I found, was the chief, Einar Moesgaard. In light of his consistent composure it was almost impossible to know if he was being sly or naïve. Did he truly believe what he was saying, or was he gently manipulating or prodding those he disliked under the guise of political correctness? I found him quite amusing to watch as he taunted Helmer time and time again, setting him up with tasks he’d loathe or breaking the news that reports that had conveniently been destroyed by Helmer’s gf had been archived. It got good laughs out of me, whether the character was intentional or not.
The rest of the characters were a mixed bunch, and they were all played quite well – especially given that this was a television production. Of course, given that it was a Swedish production (which, presumably, means far less money that a US production), this means that the look of the show is quite rough. It gives the impression of having been made as a student project – aside from the fact that the actors were obviously professionals and that they used a real hospital as a setting. The cheapness of it all actually tainted the show for me, because I was constantly comparing what it could have been to what it was.
Which leads me to the fact that this show was the inspiration for Stephen King’s own 13-part mini-series called ‘Kingdom Hospital’. He apparently based himself on the first two series (the second part was released in 1997), as well as the script for the third (which was never made due to the deaths of many of the original cast members). The whole time was watching ‘Riget’, I could imagine exactly how Stephen King would do it; it felt King-ish in many ways, and I could completely see the appeal of adapting it to an North American market with his own flair. He was apparently respectful enough of the material that he went so far as to adapt the characters’ names to sound similar to the originals – which gives me much hope.
The writing on this particular series could have been better, unfortunately, so it would be nice if King brought cohesion to what could be a bit of a mess. In ‘Riget’, we frequently found ourselves with cliff-hangers that weren’t followed upon, enigmas that never seemed to have any point, developments that didn’t make any sense, …etc. In fact, one of the reasons a second series was put together is because fans felt that it left too many questions unanswered – so they clamoured for a second part to wrap things up properly. Bizarrely enough, the second series is said to have made things even more incoherent, thereby necessitating a third series – a set of episodes that will now never actually get made.
Even the behind-the-scene featurette suggests that they quickly wrote the series and didn’t want to do rewrites, which would explain why it feels so sloppy. I mean, I can’t confirm that this was a first draft, but it sounds like very little went into the screenplay – so loose-ends were bound to come up. As well, it appears that much was put together in the editing room, that the flow and tone was decided there – so it’s conceivable that more improvisation happened on this show than one would normally expect.
It doesn’t change that there were great ideas, but they probably needed polishing. I’m crossing my fingers that Stephen King will have done that for his version of the series. I will no doubt hunt it down rabidly and review it shortly thereafter. Seriously, I’m quite curious to know if King will recreate Von Trier’s enigmatic, quasi-philosophical outros over the closing credits – they were a real joy, being so jubilantly offbeat. I’m not sure that King would make for as eerie a master of ceremonies, but it would be fun anyway.
Date of viewing: September 29-30, 2012