Monday, 24 May 2010



You don't even get so much as the word "ug" from Mads Mikkelsen, in the lead role of Nicolas Winding Refn's Dark Ages Viking picture. To say he's a monosyllabic character would be to overstate his syllabicness by a factor of one. He doesn't speak throughout the entire movie, not a single grunt even when people are coming at him with axes.

At the start of Valhalla Rising, Mads (unnamed but generally referred to as One-Eye for the most obvious of reasons) has been captured by some pagans with Scottish accents and chained up while they try and kill him. That doesn't work and One-Eye subsequently escapes with a small boy in tow: they meets up with some Christians with an urge to liberate the Holy Lands (or something), get completely lost in the fog and a lot of them end up slaughtered by an unidentified bunch of people listed in the closing credits as Indians.

The minimal dialogue, the throbbing score, the hallucinatory visual style - it adds up to an art movie rather than a commercial one. There's no wenching and pillaging and hornéd helmets, no dragon slaying or sacrifices to Odin. There's just a bunch of hairy, muddy, blood-caked men (no female elements save for one shot of some naked women huddled together in a wet field) and the bleakest landscapes imaginable. Just as Polanski's Macbeth gave us a Scotland so bleak and damp that no-one in his right mind would ever want to be king of it, so Valhalla Rising gives us cold, inhospitable mountains and acres of mud. It's a picture of a planet largely untouched by humanity, let lone any kind of civilisation; a planet on which the first vaguely semi-sentient men are just starting to explore.

And on that level, I really liked the movie. It's a pity it didn't get a cinema release (one week at the Apollo in Regent Street doesn't count as a proper theatrical outing) as I think it would have been particularly impressive on a big screen. And the violent bits, when they come, are splattery and gutsy and gleefully show no mercy. It's true that not much happens, it's true that there's no explanation for what's going on, and it's true that the entire cast really need a bath, but it's rather beautiful and I enjoyed it far more than I was expecting. Perversely, if it had been closer to what I was expecting - Mads and the boys fighting and slaughtering and laying waste to the heathens - I'd probably have been disappointed.


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