Dir: Kristian Levring. Denmark. 2000. 109 mins
Prod Co: Zentropa Entertainments 5. Int'l Sales: Good Machine. Prods: Patricia Kruijer, Vibeke Windelov. Exec prods: William A Tyrer, Chris J Ball, David Linde, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Scr: Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen. DoP: Jens Schlosser. Ed: Nicholas Wayman Harris. Main cast: Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, Bruce Davison, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer.
The tried and trusted dramatic device of disparate strangers stranded in a remote, hostile environment is filtered through the sensibilities of Shakespeare and the ten commandments of Dogme 95 in The King Is Alive. Set in the African desert and shot in English, the fourth Dogme feature is ponderous in places and not without its pretensions. The Dogme rules however do lend a certain raw energy to a situation familiar from Alive, The Flight Of The Phoenix and countless lesser tales.
A talented international ensemble cast may increase the project's attractiveness but it lacks the abrasive originality of Festen or the warmth of Mifune. Widespread critical support is unlikely and it will be difficult to attract an arthouse audience who may already have concluded that the Dogme novelty has had its day.
The Dogme commitment to using natural light and avoiding a music score does help convey some of the heat and discomfort of the desert location. Days are bright with piercing sunshine. Nights are tar black with clear skies and twinkling stars. The sense of isolation is palpable for the eleven bus passengers forced to take shelter in an abandoned mining town. Five hundred miles off course and one hundred and fifty miles from salvation, they are left to survive on dew drops and tinned carrots when their bus runs out of petrol in the middle of nowhere.
The King Is Alive does indulge in some of the cliches of the Hollywood adventure yarn - a lone saviour sets off for help never to return, for instance, and a passing plane inevitably fails to spot the survivors signal. Mostly, it concentrates on the travellers lost in the desert and the tensions in relationships or the flaws in character that their ordeal will bring to the surface. Stage actor Henry (David Bradley) is the one who encourages everyone to pass the endless days of frustration and boredom by helping him stage a reading of King Lear. Naturally, Shakespeare's text has parallels for individuals dealing with their own issues of fear, insecurity, ageing and mortality.
Slow-moving at times, the film doesn't always convince you that the Dogme rules have necessarily enhanced a screenplay that would lose little of its impact shot on more conventional terms. The supposed gains in edgy authenticity are sometimes outweighed by an intrusive trickiness. The technical restrictions only really pay off in the closing twenty minutes when the situation grows increasingly hopeless. Now, the grainy images, hand-held camerawork and natural locations become a true asset in conveying the sense of doom and utter despair.
Suitably grimy and dishevelled, actors from Bruce Davison to Janet McTeer suffer for their art and lend a wholehearted commitment to the project. The film is dedicated to the late Brion James who died shortly after shooting was completed last summer.