The Kingdom of Us review – knotty chronicle of family defined by single traumatic event

When Paul Shanks killed himself in 2007, he left behind seven children and his wife Vikie. Lucy Cohen’s sensitive documentary shows how they are coping

An intense, convoluted family documentary predicated on a single, nightmarish act: the suicide of Paul Shanks in 2007, which left behind his wife Vikie, and seven children – six girls and one boy. Film-maker Lucy Cohen has assembled a layered, jigsaw-like portrait of a knotted and undeniably traumatised family unit, whose apparent isolation is alluded to in the film’s title. The Kingdom of Us is being released by Netflix, which has in the past been accused of playing fast and loose with not-dissimilar themes of teenage trauma, in 13 Reasons Why and To the Bone. This film, however, benefits from taking a considerably more sober and responsible approach.

From what we see of him – culled from copious amounts of home video footage that Shanks himself appeared to shoot compulsively – he initially comes across as one of those funster dads, always organising some giant escapade or other; jacking in his career as a tuxedoed cabaret singer and moving the family to a rambling plot of land near Coventry, thereby enabling an outdoorsy, energetic type of life for them all, seemed to be part of the programme. In hindsight, of course, it looks considerably different: a wilful withdrawal, a disturbing bid to try and maintain control. The picture is also complicated by the fact that a number of the kids are also on the autistic spectrum. Cohen’s judicious selection of the home video gradually reveals more and more of Shanks’s difficult behaviour, which included severe depression as well as more obviously dark and hostile acts.

The Kingdom of Us, however, spends most of its time in the present, chronicling the haphazard efforts of the now-teenage kids to grapple with the fallout, along with their mother who exudes a weary phlegmatism that only occasionally cracks under the strain. Even if it’s a little tricky to keep tabs on exactly which kid is which, given strong family resemblances, we can see the impact of their father’s death echoing down the years; not only in guilt and grief, but also fear of the future and whether they may be destined to play out a similar scenario themselves.

The family’s seemingly-chaotic lifestyle – perhaps inevitable with seven hormone-wracked teenagers in the house – is certainly conducive to the sense of emotional battleground, and Cohen’s fly-on-the-wall style captures some impressive stand-up rows: these are children who really know the meaning of death and loss. Small triumphs – an exam success here, a singing competition there – are offset by the permanent sense of foreboding: everyone, you sense, is on the verge of bursting into tears. The ubiquitous home tech of the not-that-distant past – old cassette tapes along with the crackly videotape – means that a reminder is never far away.

Cohen engineers a faintly perceptible narrative arc – as the kids get older, we see them successfully negotiating one or two landmarks of personal development – but the overriding sense is that this is never going away, at least not in these febrile teenage years. As one problem diminishes, another one is looming behind it. In the end, we are left with just that: no closure, no finality, simply an open-ended progression with no clear direction forward. In that way, perhaps, it’s like life.

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Contributor

Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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