The Kingdom is a gargantuan hospital in downtown Copenhagen, the sort of institution you only visit if you work there or if you have to. There is a forlorn Christmas tree in the lobby, a one-legged goblin in the lift and a pigeon trapped in the revolving doors. The building (all 16 storeys of it) is a temple to modernity and showcases the best of 21st-century medical science. But it is built on a swamp, the site of the old bleaching pools and the ghost of the dead appear to outnumber the living. The pigeon, on balance, is one of the luckier inmates. It at least has a slender chance of escape.
“I can see that most of you have been here before,” quips Dr Pontopidan (Lars Mikkelsen) at the lectern – and although he’s addressing the guests at the establishment’s annual Pain Congress he may also be nodding to the audience at this year’s Venice film festival. That’s because Lars von Trier’s five-part miniseries The Kingdom Exodus marks the director’s belated return to the scene of his classic 90s TV drama, a hospital saga which folded the soap opera in with the horror story to devilish good effect. If the old black magic isn’t as potent this time around, The Kingdom: Exodus contains enough wildness and weirdness to satisfy the fanbase. Watching it is a little like the inpatient experience itself: acres of dead time, sudden dumps of head-spinning information, plus a constant, gnawing sense of dread.
The Kingdom Exodus opens, tellingly, with a clip of one of Von Trier’s direct-to-camera sign-offs from the original series, revisiting the director in his energised, impish youth. In the intervening decades his career has peaked and cratered like a cardiogram. He’s won the Palme d’Or, joked about having sympathy for Hitler, been kicked out of Cannes, been invited back to Cannes, battled alcoholism and depression, been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and announced his retirement from feature film-making. The fact that he’s here at all is cause for some kind of celebration.
It’s tempting, then, to view The Kingdom Exodus as a circling back to home; the closest thing that passes for sanctuary in his cockeyed, transgressive and treacherous world. Beneath the jaundiced strip lights of the hospital corridors, he’s free to swing a handheld camera with the brio of old, darting from one queasy set piece to the next as sleepwalker Karen (Bodil Jorgenson) hunts lost souls inside the neurology ward and the detestable Swede Helmer Jr (Mikael Persbrandt) searches for the grave of his equally detestable late father. According to the Greek chorus in the kitchen, the old world and the new are about to collide, with a multitude of spirits passing through the gates of the Kingdom. Not that this means a great deal to preening Helmer Jr. When the doctor’s not agonising over his dad, he’s holed up in his office, merrily masturbating to “Swedish Sing-Along” on YouTube.
In-jokes abound. The show’s a nightmarish revue, peppered with familiar faces in brief walk-on roles. In scuttles Willem Dafoe as a sulphurous interloper, come to menace Karen in her bed. Working out of the toilet, Alexander Skarsgård takes the role of the “Swedish lawyer” previously played by his own father, Stellan. At times the script (co-written by Von Trier and Niels Vørsel) goes full meta-fiction, informing us that the hospital’s reputation was comprehensively trashed by the original show. Longtime staff members recall the antics of “that blundering fool Trier”. Some are still bridling over “the dumb things that he made us say”.
Naturally the director is teasing us here. I doubt he needs to be reassured as to the merits of The Kingdom, which was crisp and playful and built a fabulous world on the run. That pure thrill of creation is what’s missing from Exodus. In its place we get a lugubrious feat of recycling that almost amounts to fan fiction. It’s fun to a point and richly textured to a fault, with a plot that’s entirely driven by what has gone before, beating back over the myth and re-investigating the building’s arcane dark corners. Undeniably Von Trier has assembled a colourful rogues gallery here. From the porters in their smocks to the chief in his suit, everyone is afforded a turn under the strip lights. But these characters are so fuelled and burdened by backstory that they’re like in-patients dragging wheeled IV drips behind them, in perpetual danger of tripping over their own feeding tubes.