All stitched up - well, nearly

It's a made-for-TV film with artistic credentials, a weird cast of characters - and it's four and a half hours long. `The great accomplishment of The Kingdom is its blending of black comedy, farce and ghost story'

THE KINGDOM Lars von Trier (no cert)

After four and a half riveting hours, Lars von Trier's The Kingdom ends with the three most maddening words in narrative art. By that point, the viewer has grown first accustomed, then addicted to its sophisticated plotting and characterisation, its subtle mixing of genres, but those three little words will spoil quite a few people's evenings. There will be groans in selected art cinemas.

The Kingdom isn't strictly speaking a film, but a four-part series made for Danish television. The director, who co-wrote the script, refers to it as a "left-handed" project, written in a new way for a new format. Von Trier didn't have the luxury of long preparation (he claims the script was written in six weeks), and gave up his preferred working method of storyboarding every sequence. The result was that the editing stage became a further part of the creative process, rather than the implementation of decisions already made.

Von Trier boasts jovially about having "sold out", but The Kingdom's mixture of art and commerce is canny enough to show that he's bluffing. There are even two opening sequences, one highly aestheticised and the other dynamic. The first is a stunning tableau of the Copenhagen bogs where bleachers used to do their work. It's in slow motion, and bathed in ivory light - light that has itself been softly bleached. Then there's a made-for-TV title sequence, all pounding music and jumpy cutting, speeding ambulances and multiple images of the main characters.

The director claims to have been inspired by a TV series from his childhood (Belphegor), and also by Twin Peaks, which brought out in David Lynch, in Von Trier's judgement, qualities missing from his movies. Some of The Kingdom in fact looks like ER - since this is a hospital drama of sorts - or Homicide, whose jarring editing it imitates. If you hated the jerkiness there, you won't be soothed here either, but there are rewards in store for the patient.

The arty opening sequence incorporated a stern voice-over, describing the assumptions of those who built the great hospital called "The Kingdom" on the site of the old bleaching ponds: "Perhaps their arrogance became too pronounced, and their persistent denial of the spiritual..." You wouldn't get that line of thinking on ER, would you? But the plot certainly follows up this early declaration by putting pressure on the two characters who pay more than lip service to rationalism.

One of these is Helmer Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, the anti-hero of the piece, a Swedish surgeon whose human skills leave much to be desired. He's brusque and obsessed with the correct procedures: he makes no secret of his contempt for little Denmark and sloppy Danes. What he does keep secret is that he was responsible for a child's brain damage in the course of an operation. There is nothing remotely likeable about Helmer, but the way that the plot keeps throwing his way precisely the sort of situation he can't handle makes him a stubbornly sympathetic monster. He has a boss who tries to jazz up morning conference with first names (Helmer's first name is Stig) and singing. He joins a sort of hospital freemasonry - The Sons of the Morning - who will look after his interests, but at a terrible cost in humiliation. He has patients who ask to be hypnotised because of their allergies to anaesthesia, and who hum loudly while he operates on them.

The other devotee of reason is a pathologist whose speciality (a rare sort of liver cancer) shows up only about once a decade. There's a wonderful specimen in the hospital at the moment, except that new legislation means he needs the relatives' permission - which they won't give - to dissect. There's a legal loophole, but it leads him into a truly grotesque course of action, which is all the more effective for being underplayed.

Ranged against the rationalists are one pragmatist and one spiritualist. Hook, a junior doctor who lives in the basement of the hospital, runs a sort of clearing house for the institution's surplus. His definition of recycling is broad, including as it does the precipitating-out of cocaine from leftover eye medication, which he then sells to the doctors. Hook keeps a little symbolic cemetery, with crosses representing patients damaged by negligence, and trades in knowledge as well as in equipment.

A negligent martinet, a pathologist in love with a tumour, and a black marketeer with a conscience. The quartet of principals is completed by Mrs Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a hypochondriac clairvoyant. She gets herself admitted for an imaginary complaint, but catches the whiff of a haunting when she hears a girl crying in the lift shaft. Mrs Drusse is the most sympathetic of the characters, a sort of Scandinavian Margaret Rutherford, except in her tyrannising of her poor defeated bear of a son, who just happens to work as a printer in the hospital to which she so regularly seeks admission.

The great accomplishment of The Kingdom is its blending of black comedy, farce and ghost story. The supernatural material is discreetly handled, without overweening effects. In four and a half hours, there is only one Poltergeist shot (phantom hand reaches up through grating to grab doll) and one Ghostbusters moment (hospital trolley loaded with ghosts passes through visiting dignitary).

So careful is the plot construction that a major farce climax arrives without our noticing the build-up. A government minister is invited by Helmer's awful superior to inspect the hospital, and everywhere his eye falls there are unauthorised operations and impromptu exorcisms going on. If this is a beautiful piece of art construction that doesn't release the farce emotions (pain experienced as pleasure), then that is only because we know the reasons behind each tableau of misbehaviour, and can no longer view things with a conventional eye.

The only doubts attaching to the project must come from its use of a pair of Down's Syndrome dishwashers as a sort of chorus. Their scenes in the scullery are somehow pastoral, and take place in a filtered ivory light, but it is still unsatisfactory to show Down's Syndrome people as eerie children (they are fully aware of all the ghosts) who have no part in the human world (we only see them interacting with each other). The portrayal of a Haitian member of the hospital staff is also rather slapdash - the film seems rather to share Helmer's assumption that anyone from Haiti knows voodoo as a matter of course.

But the only absolutely unsatisfactory thing about The Kingdom is that final phrase, coming after such a magnificent stretch of controlled narrative: To Be Continued... how long will the waiting be?

n At the ICA, London, SW1 from Fri 5 Jan (0171-930 3647)

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