With the release of Centurion, Agora and Clash Of The Titans, historical epics are very much the vogue of the season. Nicholas Winding Refn brings another take on a period of history shrouded in mythological origins, this time serving up an earthy and bloody tale of pilgrimatic Vikings in the 10th Century.
Mads Mikkelsen plays One Eye (something of a trend for Mads as he played the monocular villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), a mute, scarred, battle-hardened ball of sinew. He’s carted around in chains by a tribe of Vikings who pit him against fighters from other clans– One Eye’s ferocity and skill means he never loses and he earns them a steady stream of money.
Eventually, he seizes the chance of escape and, slaughtering his captors, joins up with a band of newly converted Christian Vikings who want to make a name for themselves fighting in the Crusades. But an apparently supernatural fog drives their ship a long way off course.
Refn has crafted a film which is oppressive from the outset. From its chapter title cards, monochrome colour palette, to its atonal screeching soundtrack, it’s clear that this is not a film that’s going to be played for laughs. Refn has stated that he wanted One Eye to be a force of nature and that’s clearly evident – it seems that nothing can stem the tide of his emotionless savagery.
But beyond the relentlessly overbearing atmosphere that Valhalla Rising evokes, it has very little to say. One Eye has no back-story – he’s a man with “no past and no present” but he’s less of the “monolith” that Refn intended and more of a cardboard cut out.
The whole film is a constant struggle for survival, caked in seas of mud and blood. But whereas Centurion had Michael Fassbender in much the same environment, the story actually had some kind of drive; Valhalla Rising asks us to be content with looking at the view.
The supporting cast are relegated to side show puppets, blindly following One Eye on his course. But with no actual substance to get hold of, they’re deemed to feel like stage scenery in a play, whose role is to die at the appropriate time in as eye-wateringly brutal a way as possible.
It’s a violent landscape populated by violent people doing violent things. But other than convey bleak hostility, what else does it have to say? It’s in danger of being swallowed up by its own self-importance but actually misses the mark when it comes to delivering something truly compelling.
Taken on its own merits, Valhalla Rising looks very impressive. Mikkelsen does his best with the thin material he’s given – his portrayal of One Eye is almost elemental in its unrelenting brutality and the still shots of cold, unforgiving Scotland are undeniably magnificent – a picturesquely indifferent canvas on which torrents of blood can be spilled.
But blended together, it never quite transcends the sum of its parts and it will frustrate those looking for an explicit explanation; it’s as cold and detached as the landscape it inhabits.