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With: Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, Lia Williams
Written by: Kristian Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Kristian Levring
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and language
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 107
Date: 11/05/2000

The King is Alive (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Desert Islands

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The filmmaking manifesto known as "Dogma 95" has caused equal amounts of skepticism and enthusiasm, and both sides are correct. The attempt to "get back to basics" is noble and justified, but the brouhaha surrounding it is entirely suspect. When Steven Spielberg considers making a "Dogma" film, you know the hype has either gone too far... or not far enough.

For those who don't know, the "Dogma 95" manifesto was created and signed by four Danish filmmakers, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring, back in 1995. Each agreed to make one film under the manifesto, following its 10 specific rules, including: no artificial lighting (except for a single light mounted on the camera), no black and white film, no "genre" or period pictures, no special effects, no props that don't already exist on location, and so forth (most of these rules get broken to various degrees, but that's another matter). The first three filmmakers have delivered their films, The Celebration (Vinterberg), The Idiots (Von Trier), and Mifune (Kragh-Jacobsen), and now the fourth, Levring's The King Is Alive, arrives in theaters.

Levring now enjoys a certain freedom his brothers did not have. The "Dogma" hype has traveled far and wide enough to allow him a larger scope and more ambitious story, i.e., a larger budget. It also allows him a prestigious cast. And, unlike many other filmmakers making their directorial debuts, he's had five full years of buildup and anticipation.

And The King Is Alive mostly deserves the hype. It's a fascinating, if dreary, portrait of a busload of world travelers who suddenly find themselves stranded in the middle of the African desert after following a faulty compass. On board: the Americans Jennifer Jason Leigh (as a sexy blond tart), Janet McTeer, Bruce Davison and Brion James (in his final role), the French Romane Bohringer, the English David Calder, Chris Walker and Lia Williams, and African bus driver Vusi Kunene.

As we would expect, these characters immediately rub each other the wrong way, hacking away at each other's faults and nuances. An Australian man named Jack (Miles Anderson) seems to know how to survive in the desert and begins to walk to the next town for gasoline for the bus. While they wait for him, the others move into a set of abandoned buildings (storage sheds?), eat from discarded cans of carrots, many of them tainted, and collect morning dew for drinking water. For some reason, a native man named Kanana (Peter Kubheka) lives among these ruins and occasionally observes the travelers, narrating the tale in his own language.

An English intellectual named Henry (David Bradley) decides to alleviate the boredom and stress by staging King Lear, which he writes out as much as he can from memory. I'm not sure if Levring intended the plot of King Lear to mirror his own characters' fates; sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. Yet Shakespeare's poetry does provide a welcome relief to us in the audience as well as the characters on screen.

Levring shoots his tale on digital video and gets wonderful results. The desert images feel even hotter and drier than those in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, and the interiors of the dark sheds, broken up by windows of exposed brightness, perfectly capture the oppressive heat and tension. And, unlike the previous "Dogma" films, I was able to forget all about the "Dogma" manifesto and become involved in the drama. Though Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen are credited with writing the film, the actors were allowed to improvise, and the emotional entanglements become more pungent as a result. The movie happily avoids a stagnant theatricality that could have come from these multiple characters stuck in one location, even given the motif of putting on a play.

Best of all, as I was watching The King Is Alive, I realized I had no idea how it would end. Of course, the characters spend the whole movie waiting to be rescued, and so do we. In a Hollywood film, such as Cast Away, rescue is inevitable. But just the fact that rescue might not be an option in this new film excited me and gave me hope for the movies in general. Maybe this "Dogma" thing works after all.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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