Friday May 11, 2001

     Kristian Levring's great-looking "The King Is Alive" demands more than it rewards.
     It strands 11 people in a long-abandoned mining community somewhere in a vast African desert, where one of the group, a onetime Shakespearean actor, writes down "King Lear" from memory. He persuades the others to participate in staging the tragedy as a way of staving off despair and madness while awaiting a rescue that may never come.
     Unfortunately, most of these 10 tourists and their driver haven't enough depth or individuality to make the grueling ordeal worth enduring. With precious few supplies to sustain them and rapidly decreasing hope of survival, the group responds predictably. Raw sexual desires surface, obnoxious men are told the awful truth about themselves by fed-up women, and the wisdom of Shakespeare gradually gives the group increasing courage and meaning as their plight worsens.
     These people are observed the entire time by an elderly black man, Moses (Vusi Kunene), who spends his days sitting like a Buddha on a broken-down sofa in a ramshackle shelter. The group shows little interest in how this man manages to live day in and day out in such an arid, isolated place, but via subtitles the audience is occasionally privy to his thoughts. It occurs to him that while he doesn't understand what these people are saying to one another, neither do they, the implication being that they don't listen to one another.
     To Moses, the one exception is Henry (David Bradley), the Shakespearean actor, and he is correct: Henry is a humane, caring, perceptive man and the only one in the group who has any real faith in being rescued.
     Henry is especially sensitive to Catherine (Romane Bohringer), a moody self-described "French intellectual," and to Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a deceptively air-headed young American who attracts a burly, 60ish Briton, Charles (David Calder). Henry, Gina and Charles are far and away the film's most intriguing individuals, and it's too bad that the others detract time and attention from them.
     Janet McTeer and Bruce Davison are first-rate actors, but they're not given a chance to add anything fresh to the middle-aged couple whose marriage has gone stale. That a husky young Britisher (Chris Walker) reveals himself to be a pig to his quiet, withdrawn wife (Lia Williams) comes as no surprise.
     Other bus passengers are an ailing businessman (the late Brion James) and a Crocodile Dundee-type survivalist (Miles Anderson) who has left on a 150-mile trek for help; Peter Kuheka plays the bus driver.
     Stylish and gritty, "The King Is Alive" lacks the impact of revelation that might have made the journey worth taking.


The King Is Alive, 2001. R, for sexuality and language. An IFC release of a Zentropa Entertainment5 ApS and Danish Broadcasting Corp. production in collaboration with SVT Drama, TV2 Norge and YLE. Made in accordance with Dogma 95 rules. Director Kristian Levring. Producers Svend Abrahamsen, Patricia Kruijer. Executive producers William A. Tyrer, Chris J. Ball, David Linde, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Screenplay Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen, with inspiration from William Shakespeare's "King Lear." Cinematographer Jens Schlosser. Editor Nicholas Wayman Harris. Creative consultant & assistant to the director Jakob Gronlykke. Wardrobe consultant Rosa Diaz. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. David Bradley as Henry. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Gina. David Calder as Charles. Romane Bohringer as Catherine. Janet McTeer as Liz. Bruce Davison as Ray.