The King Is Alive Movie Review

The premise is irresistible, combining dark humor with existential crisis. A busload of travelers gets lost in the Namibian desert, hundreds of miles from anywhere. After predicting this merry band of survivors will soon be killing each other over a sip of water, one member of the party suggests they stage an amateur performance of William Shakespeare's King Lear. At first, it's simply an enjoyable way to fiddle away the endless hours. Before long, however, this cast of laymen discover meaning and dangerous irony in the text. "You don't have to worry," assures their resident Goneril (Janet McTeer): "Nobody falls in love. And everybody dies in the end."

Kristian Levring's The King is Alive operates on a conceptual, pseudo-intellectual level, perhaps a touch too orderly to convey true madness. As the players become embroiled in King Lear, jealous Catherine (Romane Bohringer) plots against young hipster Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who won the much-envied role of Cordelia. Meanwhile, disgruntled housewife Liz (McTeer) seduces the exotic black bus driver (Vusi Kunene) before the very eyes of her passive husband (Bruce Davison). As the actor playing King Lear (Brion James) quickly falls to pieces from dysentery, the scholarly director (David Bradley) watches the proceedings with detached malice, chuckling, "Is man no more than this?" And whatever became of Aussie survivalist Jack (Miles Anderson), who took off into the desert to find help?

The cast does what it can with the material, bravely parlaying the Shakespearean text with everyman incompetence. McTeer, as always, attacks her role with brittle nerves of steel, finding perceptive hints of dignity and righteousness in a shrewish bitch. She finds the perfect scene partner in Davison, whose faraway stare and painfully angry grin register even when the character is standing around doing nothing. The emotional highpoint is Davison's fateful decision of walking away from King Lear, his cheating wife, and the whole thing -- tromping through the desert dunes as the awestruck camera charts his progress. His maniacal laughter is a relief: At least someone gets the nasty joke God has played on them.

Too little is used of the late Brion James (who you may remember as replicant Leon from Blade Runner), playing the Texas businessman, Ashley. One wishes his fleeting, foggy-eyed square dance became a scene unto itself instead of a ten second insert shot. Jennifer Jason Leigh also doesn't fare so well, typecast once again as the girl who falls apart. Levring indulges her moans and shrieks as the brutish Charles (David Calder) makes sexual advances on her.

Shot on digital video, the rough and tumble "you are here" documentary approach expected from Dogme95 works to harrowing effect. The desert is beautiful and strange, with mountains of sand dissipating in the wind under the blinding white heat of the sun. Dawn and dusk are conveyed through tints of blue, while the kerosene lamps provide creepy shadows in their entrenched huts during the bleak evenings. There's a majestic grandeur in the cinematography not found in Lars von Trier's visual shitstorm, The Idiots -- though one could present a convincing argument that inept camerawork would have been a boon companion to the company of madmen.

There's too much structure in The King is Alive, paying far too much attention to mathematical pairings of couples scheming against one another. Peter Brook's Marat/Sade allowed the inmates of an insane asylum the opportunity to put on a show, and there was pure chaos, energy, unpredictable violence, and cathartic song. In the same way von Trier's The Idiots presents the world as an incoherent babble, Marat/Sade found meaning in civil disorder. Those movies stripped away the filters of plot and composition, creating mini-explosions of true feeling that we could use more of in today's conservative climate.

For better or for worse, Levring summons up the excruciating monotony of being stranded in no man's land. Unshaven, bedraggled, filthy, and wild-eyed with crazy fright, the cast of thespians is saddled with the camera's humorless gaze. Perhaps they should have put on a musical. As the characters descend into varying levels of madness, an audience may grow numb to their torment (on display for your viewing pleasure). There's nothing left but the bitter taste of sand. And nothing will come of nothing, after all.

And the queeen is squatting.


The King Is Alive Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2000


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