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The King Is Alive Reviews

Straitjacketed by both a heavy literary conceit and the stringent rules of Dogme 95 filmmaking, it's a wonder this dark psychological thriller can breathe at all. That it's gripping is a tribute to both its ensemble cast and its uncredited director, Kristian Levring. As the sun rises across a blazingly hot desert, a busload of travellers awake to discover their driver (Vusi Kunene) has been following a broken compass and they're hopelessly lost. The bus makes it to a small cluster of abandoned, sand-filled buildings — remnants of a long-gone mining company — before running out of gas. One intrepid passenger (Miles Anderson) marches off into the blistering heat in search of the nearest village, and the rest are left to the hell of each other's company. After a few days of watching his fellow travelers strip down to their basic human needs, erstwhile actor Henry (David Bradley) is reminded of that grand, despairing line from King Lear — "Is man no more than this?" — and gets an idea: Why not stage the play? Transcribing as much of Shakespeare's tragedy as he can remember, Henry assigns roles according to personality. True-hearted good-time girl Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is given the part of Cordelia; waspish Liz (Janet McTeer) gets to play both Regan and Goneril; Liz's faithful husband, Ray (Bruce Davison), who suffers under his wife's sharp tongue and his father's (David Calder) cruel manner, is handed the part of Kent. Amanda (Lia Williams), the seemingly simple-minded wife of a loud-mouthed bully (Chris Walker), plays the Fool; and Henry himself, who once lost a beloved daughter, assumes the role of Lear after the alcoholic Ashley (Brion James) succumbs to the DTs. The days wear on, and, as the troupe falls under the baleful influence of the desert heat and the play itself, the actors begin to fulfill the destinies of their characters. Shot on digital video with a hand-held camera, this is the fourth film directed by one of the four founding Dogme95 "brothers." If, as their manifesto declares, Dogme filmmakers aim is to "squeeze the truth out of the setting and characters," Levring has further restricted himself by needing to remain somewhat true to his Shakespearean source. But what doesn't entirely succeed as convincing psychodrama makes one hell of an acting exercise (it's great fun to see great actors purposely mangle the Bard's immortal words), and Levring's cast — McTeer in particular — run with it.