Though it seems counterintuitive for any movie to last longer than patrons can be expected to sit comfortably, the three-hour epic, once a novelty, is fast becoming commonplace. Yet even in this era of protracted cinematic presentations, Lars von Trier’s four-and-a-half-hour The Kingdom can safely be called long.
Of course, this quasi-mystical hospital drama from the director of art-house snooze Zentropa is not really a film as such, but four episodes of a program conceived for Danish television. Co-scripted by von Trier and Tómas Gislason, The Kingdom is an unwieldy pastiche of ghost story, dark humor, and social commentary that never quite jells, even though the finished product is longer than Gone With the Wind. Trumpeted in the film’s press kit as “ER on acid,” the film is so sluggish it’s more like ER on Quaaludes.
“The Kingdom” is the nickname for the National State Hospital in Copenhagen where the movie is setand where it was filmed. Its central plot line concerns three main characters: Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a self-important Swede who is head of the Neurology Department, Krogen (Søren Pilmark), a young neurologist who conducts a brisk trade in black-market equipment from the institution’s basement, and Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a hypochondriac and spiritualist who makes contact with the ghost of a young girl during her hospital stay. In the course of The Kingdom, Helmer struggles to have Mrs. Drusse discharged for feigning illness and to destroy evidence that he botched an operation that left a young girl brain-damaged; Krogen does his best to thwart Helmer on both counts while courting a colleague who’s in the throes of an apparently phantasmagoric pregnancy; and Mrs. Drusse and her deadbeat son investigate the sinister circumstances surrounding the ghostly little girl’s death.
The Kingdom’s cynical take on hospitals is not far out enough to be satire, not funny enough to be comedy, and not realistic enough to be anything else. (With its cheesy supernatural trappings and off-the-cuff surrealism, the film resembles nothing so much as a Danish Twin Peaks. Indeed, who could fail to locate a David Lynch influence in a film that features both a head in a bag and a body in a jar as key plot devices?) An intern wrests flowers from the hands of the dead and presents them to a sexy nurse who beds him in the sleep laboratory; Helmer browbeats the brain-damaged girl’s mother as her daughter drools and rocks in the background; after a patient’s next-of-kin refuse to relinquish it, the hospital’s anatomy professor has a diseased liver transplanted into his own body so he can claim ownership of it. Meanwhile, the hospital’s fatuous chief of staff instigates a feel-good human-relations campaign called “Operation Morning Air,” plastering the halls with decals on which a smiling sun gives the thumbs-up sign.
In its better moments, this is the kind of film in which there are plenty of straight-faced asides like, “He died, and I haven’t heard from him since.” But much of The Kingdom’s humor stakes out the nebulous territory between madcap and deadpan, generating the same uneasy sensation as being unable to tell whether or not someone is joking. At any rate, the movie doesn’t sustain any one mood longer than it takes for it to jump from one headachy, Homicide-style edit to the next. The film’s final sequence is a painstakingly orchestrated symphony of interconnectedness in which its disparate plot lines meet and implode, but by that time most audience members will be thinking solely of sciatica. CP