Published October 1, 2001
You’ve got to wonder about the chutzpah—or the stupidity—of a director who would invite comparisons between his movie and what is arguably the greatest work of dramatic art ever penned, Shakespeare’s King Lear. But the Danish director, Kristian Levring, has done it, and on the whole we can be glad that he did. His movie, The King is Alive, has been made in accordance with the principles of the Dogme 95 movement and tells the story of a busload of tourists who find themselves stranded in an abandoned mining camp in an African desert. When Jack (Miles Anderson), the only one among them with any experience of desert living, marches off to get help, the rest are persuaded by one of their number, an aged actor-director called Henry (David Bradley), to pass the time by rehearsing a performance of King Lear, most of which he has written out from memory.
To some extent the film cannot escape from the essential pretentiousness of such a conception, but one is seldom conscious of this while watching it, so intrinsically interesting is the central story of being stranded in the desert, and its capacity to bring out people’s true nature. In fact, the rehearsing of Lear in this film is approximately equivalent to the building of an airplane in the classic Flight of the Phoenix (1965), which became almost more interesting as a test of the survivors’ character than it was as their hope of escape. Henry conceives of the idea in the first place because of his pessimistic view of human nature. Watching his fellow passengers attempting to arrange their makeshift dwellings, he says “A******s! F*****g a******s! Repairing a roof out here in dead man’s land. It won’t be long before we’re fighting each other. Killing each other over a drop of water.” He says he expects to see “some kind of striptease act of basic human needs. ‘Is man no more than this?’ It’s good old Lear again.”
The others, insofar as they take Henry’s suggestion, do so more as a way to “stay positive and keep our spirits up” as Jack suggests to them before leaving. Several refuse to take part, and those who do are all preoccupied with their own lives and problems, but soon we begin to notice weird correspondences between their situation and that of the play. What I particularly liked about this was its reinforcement of our sense of the archetypal nature of Shakespeare’s characters. Here, there is not a single Edmund or Edgar, Goneril or Cordelia, Gloucester or Lear, but several, and the same character will find himself in more than one of the play’s major roles. At its best, the film makes you think, as Lear itself does, of those moments that sum up for us some fundamental truth of human nature.
One of my favorites from the play, for example, is when the Duke of Cornwall’s servant can bear his hideous cruelty to Gloucester no longer and mortally wounds him. Cornwall cannot believe what has happened to him, and insists on treating it as a mere annoyance: “Untimely comes this hurt,” he says irritably, though he is on the point of death. He’s a busy man. He hasn’t got time to die. The archetypal power of those four words is not quite matched by the comment of one of the tourists on learning that they are stranded in the desert with little water and only rusty cans of carrots left by the miners to eat—“I don’t want to be here; I have to get home”—but the comparison is not an outrageous one either. In both cases the human capacity for self-deception and the assumption that one’s plans must have impressed the gods or the fates is comically in evidence.
As in the play, much of what we see of human nature here seems to confirm Henry’s pessimism. Liz (Janet McTeer) is intolerably cruel to her husband, Ray (Bruce Davison); Paul (Chris Walker) is a husband who behaves abominably to his wife (Lia Williams). Charles, an arrogant, 60ish British businessman (David Calder) blackmails Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a rather slutty young American into having sex with him but then suddenly discovers that she is the lover he has been waiting for all his life. She uses his new and unexpected tenderness and vulnerability to wreak a terrible revenge. Meanwhile, Catherine (Romane Bohringer), an intellectual French girl plots to kill Gina out of jealousy over her performance in the role of Cordelia.
All these goings-on are watched over by an old native man who has continued to live in the abandoned village who speaks no English but who is allowed to comment from time to time in voiceover on what he sees. “They ate a bit less every day, and they said words the rest of the time…I don’t know if the desert crept into their heads at night, but it wasn’t there during the day. Together they said words. They didn’t say them to each other…” Like the use of King Lear this kind of thing seems pretentious, but it kind of works. The old man’s words, like those of Shakespeare, have an artificial sound, as if they too were made up for another occasion entirely and transported here. And yet there is something immensely moving about the characters’ sudden and unexpected discovery that someone has supplied them with just the right words for an occasion none of them could have foreseen. It’s like finding water in the desert.