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Valhalla Rising (2010, UK)

25/02/2011

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn  Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Gary Lewis

If you were to judge Valhalla Rising from the DVD cover alone you would be forgiven for expecting some kind of full blown Viking hack’n’slash fest with plenty of chaos and carnage. This is not what you would get. Instead Refn’s film is an existential, bad trip of a film, an exploration of the deeper nature of mankind and a meditation on the evil that men do. With it’s feverish visuals, choppy narrative and slow burning plot it is a challenging film and if you prefer to be led by the hand with clarity and exposition it may not be for you. For me it was the film of the year last year. Nothing else came even close.

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of plot, it centres around the mysterious “One-Eye” (Mads Mikkelsen) a mute, one eyed warrior who is kept caged by a Norse chieftan and made to fight in tournaments in order to earn him money. He eventually escapes (along with a child also enslaved by the clan) and takes up with a group of Christian warriors intent on travelling to the Holy Land to participate in the Crusades. The plan goes awry from the very beginning however and the group find themselves in circumstances that test their faith and their humanity to the very limit.

It really is an exceptional film. Absolutely gorgeous visually, it was filmed on location up Scottish hills in some atrocious weather making the beautiful cinematography even more impressive. The use of colour is amazing (I strongly recommend seeing it on Blu Ray if possible). Some tasteful post production effects help to build the sense of foreboding and the idea that nature itself is at odds with the men as they set about their Christian mission. This is really what the film is about, the conflict between human nature, the environment and so called civilised progress. One Eye is the living embodiement of the darkest parts of human nature, violence and destruction incarnate and his progression in the film from slave to saviour is a joy to  behold.

Refn shows a lot of contempt for religion in the film, the Christians are first encountered by their pyre of slaughtered heathens, all their talk of doing God’s work and serving His glory obviously a thin, flimsy disguise to try to justify their own personal ambitions of power and wealth. Eventually, their holy quest having clearly gone wrong, they can no longer hide behind their beliefs. This makes for the most disturbing sequence in the film as the realisation that their faith is misplaced sparks of a spiral of mental collapse and despair.

Mikkelsen’s performance is extraordinary, especially given that he does not utter a word for the entire film. His stoic, scarred warrior acts as a constant reminder of what is in the souls of all the men (despite their claims to piety), their attempts at conversation with him leading to revelations of what they are really thinking and feeling as they desperately attempt to fill the silence. The rest of the cast do a fine job too, especially stalwart veteran of Scottish TV and film Gary Lewis as the holy man and spiritual advisor to the leader of the would-be Crusaders.

While there is a distinct absence of marauding, that is not to say this is not a violent film. Far from it. When they come (usually at the hands of One Eye) the outbursts of violence are brutal and bloody with well choreographed although often very brief fight scenes which favour bone-crunching realism over cinematic flamboyance.

Thematically similar to Refn’s previous effort Bronson, Valhalla Rising takes the concept of the personification of the violent and base nature of mankind and pushes it to the next level, stepping outside the constraints of fact-based movie making and creating something that blurs the lines between fantasy and historical epic to great effect. Combined with its stunning visuals, this really makes Valhalla Rising unmissable.

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