REVIEW: Who's Afraid of William Shakespeare? Dogme IV's Searing "King is Alive"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/05.10.01) — King Lear: Pray do not mock me. I am a foolish fond old man.
Filmmakers of the World: Sire, we are not here to mock thee but to honor. Firstly, let it be acknowledged that Kurosawa‘s take on thou, “Ran,” a masterpiece there is of no doubt, was re-released just a short cry ago.
King Lear: Sweet Marjoram!
Filmmakers of the World: And, me Lord, TNT has just called forth a new project entitled King of Texas. Yes, Sire, a Western adaptation of your agonies starring that protector of Outer Space, Patrick Stewart.
King Lear: O ruined piece of nature. This great world shall so wear out to naught. Are not my agonies equal to more than a cart of horse manure? Do not abuse me.
Filmmakers of the World: Take heart, Master. For this week another near masterpiece is to be spilled onto art screens nationwide. An updating, true. But a Dogma 95 offering befitting a King, Sire, and one starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.
King Lear: Then I will be jovial. Pray you, undo this button and begin the projection. I will deem its merits with a kind heart.
There’s no doubt that Lear, reflectors on life, lovers of art, and those on Paxil, have a new movie to treasure. “The King is Alive,” directed by Kristian Levring, and written by both Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen, was a major gamble on its creators part. Just look at the fragile conceit. A group of white travelers are on a bus in Africa, heading to one airport from another when their plane was in disrepair. Their black driver, using a digital compass, drives forth with a silent determination. Many hours later as paved roads flit away and the landscape transforms into total sand, they discover his compass is broken.
If that wasn’t enough, the bus, after coasting 500 miles in the wrong direction, runs out of gas right by the remnants of an abandoned town. The village’s only inhabitant is an ancient native who views these strangers’ plight as just another whimsical folk tale that he will no doubt pass along to anyone who comes to listen. Namely us. “I want to tell you something that happened,” he begins.
But to those involved, their predicament is more like “Lord of the Flies” with tinges of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Four women, seven men. No water to drink except the morning dew. No cellular phone signals. Nothing to eat, but battered, rusting cans of carrots. Nothing in plenitude, but heat and boredom and lascivious thoughts.
Why not put on “King Lear,” then? Henry (David Bradley), a former actor, suggests. Having done the play often, he writes down all the dialogue he can recall. Slowly, his desert roommates break down and go along. After all, what’s the alternative? Building sand castles.
Catherine (Romane Bohringer), a young French woman, though, will have nothing to do with the production even though she aches to be Cordelia. Consequently, Gina (Leigh), a frivolous American, earns that part. Ashley (Brion James), a Southern alcoholic businessman, gets to be Lear for awhile until his DTs/food poisoning incapacitates him. Liz (Janet McTeer), with a nod to typecasting, takes on the role of a nasty sister. “I get to play the real bitch,” she announces proudly to her spineless spouse Ray (Bruce Davison) who also finally agrees to join the activities.
The only hold-out is Charles (David Calder), who’s traveling with his despised son (“Your capacity for self-degradation is formidable.”) and daughter-in-law. When Gina tries to cajole him into throwing his lot in with the rest of them, Charles makes an offer: “If I do the play, I get to fuck you . . . until this madness ends. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do for your art? Sacrifice yourself.” Gina complies. That’s only the first of the sacrifices and torments. As Liz later notes: “It’s like being in a concentration camp where each one is their own Nazi torturer.”
Sticking strictly to the Dogma 95 tenets, Levring elicits astounding performances from the entire ensemble. Leigh is sensational as Gina, the dumb American who’s not quite as manipulate-able or stupid as she plays.
McTeer is searing as a woman who’ll go to any length to mentally flagellate her hubby, even to seducing the driver because the idea that she’s had sex with a black man will destroy him. When the driver refuses, she spits on her hands and rubs the saliva mixed with dirt on her breasts to give the appearance that she’s been had. Here’s a scene you won’t quite be able to forget. And it’s just one of many episodes that will riot your senses.
“The King is Alive,” which was shot with three hand-held digital cameras than transferred to the 35mm format, interweaves the madness, the foolhardiness, the greed and the ferocity of human nature that Shakespeare depicted so brilliantly in Lear back in 1606, and shatters us again and again with its insights made refreshed.