Kristian Levring, who conjured the Dogma 95 manifesto with fellow Danes Lars Von Trier (“The Idiots”), Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”) and Sorn Kragh-Jacobson (“Mifune”), gives the movement its most visually striking entry to date with “The King Is Alive,” the fourth title to merit Dogma certification. (Although Jean-Marc Barr’s “Lovers” preemed a year ago, it’s Dogma 5.) English-lingo account of stranded bus passengers who cope with their anxiety by staging “King Lear” in a ghost town in the Namibian desert is simultaneously gritty and cerebral. Despite the highest profile cast of any Dogma production to date, pic may be the least accessible to general auds. For although “King” supplies sex and nasty revelations in an exotic yet forlorn setting, it also devotes a good chunk of screen time to rehearsing the play in the blazing sun, with mixed results.
Pic gets under way aboard a bus transporting 11 tourists (Brits, Yanks and one Frenchwoman) and driven by a black African (Vusi Kunene) who is relying on his dashboard compass to indicate the way. By the time they discover the compass is broken, they’ve gone a good 500 miles off course, running out of fuel just as they hit a motley conglomeration of barracks — all that remains of a former mine.
Although voiceover in an African tongue would appear to violate the Dogma regulations, events are nominally narrated by elderly Kanana (Peter Kubheka), the lone resident to stay on after the mine was closed. Take-charge guy Jack (South African thesp Miles Anderson), the only passenger who can communicate with Kanana, discovers that the nearest settlement is several days away across looming and treacherous sand dunes. Jack decides to leave the others and go for help, estimating that the trip will take him five days.
At first the stranded refuse to face the seriousness of their plight, but Henry (David Bradley), a London-born actor based in L.A., predicts they will soon be reduced to clawing for a drop of water or a lone carrot from the supply of canned food.
Ray (Bruce Davison) and his wife, Liz (Janet McTeer), bicker; French intellectual Catherine (Romane Bohringer) keeps her distance; proud senior citizen Charles (David Calder) makes a peculiar deal to have sex with always bored Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh); Southern gentleman Ashley (the late Brion James) gets the DTs; and Charles’ son, Paul (Chris Walker), and his wife, Amanda (Lia Williams), have a bumpy time.
Jack fails to return, and things go from bad to worse, with characters offering mostly unkind and unsolicited insights into their fellow strandees. The passengers begin to put together a version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to take their minds off their dilemma.
As the desert performance of “King Lear” takes shape — as best they can reconstruct it from memory — Kanana looks on nonplused. (In a nice touch, Kanana’s p.o.v. is always out of focus, indicating he must be nearsighted.) But is a great play enough to sustain hot, hungry, thirsty people with no particular affinity for one another and slim prospects for rescue?
Viewers truly feel stranded with the passengers in a striking, incredibly eerie locale (the abandoned diamond mining town of Kolmanskop, Namibia) surrounded by magnificent, if deadly, sand dunes. Levring — who became a commercials director after his 1986 feature debut, “Shot From the Heart” (which also used dunes as a backdrop) — establishes a potent sense of place and keeps relationships off-kilter. But pic lags in the middle, growing more interesting — if hardly more original — only as the situation deteriorates.
Digital transfer to film is top-notch, with only a few shots of daylight movement betraying their video origins.