The Kingdom Exodus review

The Kingdom: Exodus is the Satanic Danish Christmas soap opera you didn’t know you needed

4.5 out of 5 stars

In Lars von Trier’s reboot of his absurdist paranormal hospital melodrama Kingdom (1994, 1997), Kingdom: Exodus (2022), Karen, played by Bodil Jørgensen, is the ultimate Kingdom fan. The new five-part series opens with Karen scoffing at the original ending as she takes the DVD out of its player and ties herself up in bed (she’s a sleepwalker) before a spirit possesses her body, unties her knots and ushers her back to the Kingdom hospital, Rigshospitalet, where she marvels at meeting the “real” hospital staff from her favourite fictional show. 

Like Karen, I will admit to being an unabashed Kingdom fan, and while, with constant reboots dominating our cultural landscape, I understand a certain reticence to watch yet another retelling of an old favourite, this one is bizarrely and deliriously successful — far more so than David Lynch’s 2017 Twin Peaks: The Return, to which Exodus will undoubtedly be compared, especially as Trier was heavily influenced by the original Twin Peaks in creating Kingdom in the first place. It is hard not to imagine, too, that perhaps the spectre of sickness haunting Exodus feels more real than it did in the original, with Trier now working with a Parkinson’s diagnosis and with the bulk of the episodes somehow filmed in the actual Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen during COVID.

Trier’s obvious glee at making a Satanic Christmas special is palpable. A Christmas tree appears to be constructed entirely out of upside down crosses oozing blood, and the baby Jesus in a nativity scene, once accidentally broken, is replaced by a gnarled black spawn of Satan, toothy mouth agape but still cutely nestled in straw. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe, in a chilling turn as Grand Duc, a Satanic follower who is always accompanied by the noise of a swarm of flies, leads the attendees of the hospital’s Pain Conference on a festive dance through the grounds (one of a couple references to the dancing procession led by Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and just one of many, many Swedish jokes). In a rigged drinking trivia game in the first of the new episodes (Episode 9, “Halmar”), Bergman is pitted against Carl Dreyer, Hans Christian Anderson against Astrid Lindgren, August Strindberg against Søren Kierkegaard (“Kierkegaard defeats Strindberg, so Halmer drinks” etc).

The Kingdom Exodus review
The Kingdom: Exodus

The anti-hero of seasons one and two was Stig Helmer, the disgraced Swedish (and Dane-hating) neurosurgeon played by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who died a year after season two of Kingdom aired. (His death, notably, was followed by the deaths of fellow cast members Morten Rotne Leffers, also in 1998, and Kirsten Rolffes in 2000, one reason the original series came to an end.) In Exodus, however, Helmer has been replaced by Helmer Jr., aka Halfmer (half of his father), played by Mikael Persbrandt. Halfmer has accepted the job at Rigshospitalet, “compelled to go to the country that drove (his) father crazy,” and his own descent into madness is near-immediate, later seen sobbing, coated in mud and clutching his father’s ashes to his chest (contained within a Swedish Tetra Pak no less). Persbrandt is one of the best additions to the series; where Järegård’s Helmer was cartoonishly loathsome, Halmer is desperate and broken, his manic disintegration more difficult to watch. 

If you’re wondering, ‘What’s a Lars von Trier work without something infuriating?’, here it is unfortunately an interminable and gratuitous sexual harassment subplot where a female staff member, Anna (in an albeit strange and captivating performance by Tuva Novotny), entraps Halfmer in a series of farcical stunts (like wearing fake nipples and scrubs that don’t stay up, the better to suddenly fall down). If the endless mockery of the Swedes is somehow hilarious, Anna’s devious flirtations land flat.

Still, the mayhem is glorious. At the risk of giving spoilers, Udo Kier makes a reappearance as Little Brother, only this time he’s much, much larger, and now known as Big Brother: a sort of bald Alice in Wonderland drowning in his own tears in the infamous bleaching ponds that viewers of the original will immediately recognize. The spirit Solomon, trapped in a glass jar, has to be fed treats shredded with a miniature cheese grater before giving spiritual advice, and the Rigshospitalet’s basement is home not only to an opium den where retired doctors finish their days in a drugged stupor but to a dimly lit IT department casually conducting hacking operations. 

Exodus‘s coyly meta premise hovers ectoplasmically around the show without distracting from the comedic terror unfolding within the hospital, and all the while Jørgensen’s Karen is a determinedly brave force through the chaos. Like the original Kingdom, and like any successful soap opera, Exodus packs a surprising emotional force through its characteristic Trier impishness, inviting us, as the show’s tag phrase goes, to “be prepared to take the Good, with the Evil.” ■

The Kingdom: Exodus (directed by Lars Von Trier)

The Kingdom: Exodus is currently streaming on MUBI.

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