Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Film Review - 'Valhalla Rising'

When you imagine a film about Vikings, especially one with a title like Valhalla Rising, it would probably seem fair to expect some sort of violent action film.Well, it's only fair to point out, upfront, that this really isn't that sort of film (the action part, at least. Valhalla Rising is, on occasion, very violent). It's bleak and very sombre, rather than tense and exciting - and, it's pacing may test the patience of some of its audience. But, it could also be a fascinating experience, if you're willing to give it a chance.

One other thing that's probably worth pointing out, though, is that, while the film might have been filmed in Scotland with a cast that includes many Scottish actors, the setting is clearly intended to be pre-Christian Denmark. It is a film about Vikings, after all.

But, anyway, on to the film, itself.

A mysterious mute warrior (Mads Mikkelsen), simply named 'One Eye' for reasons that should be fairly obvious, is kept as a prisoner. His only purpose, as far as his captors are concerned, is to fight for their entertainment - challenging other prisoners while his captors place bets on the results.

When he isn't fighting, One Eye is kept chained and caged -and, the deliberate and cautious treatment that he receives from his captors makes it very clear that they are genuinely afraid of him, and of what might happen if he were ever to get loose. The closest that One Eye has come to forming any sort of connection with another person is with an unnamed boy (Maarten Stevenson) - a slave, much like him, whose job it is to bring him his food and water, each day.

Soon enough, One Eye does manage to escape, though - and, the results are every bit as brutal and violent as his captors feared. Slaughtering his captors, but sparing the unnamed boy, One Eye sets off toward some unknown destination. With few other options, the boy decides to follow.

Later, the pair come a group of Christian Vikings - converts who, given the period in which this film seems to be set, represent the first wave of the Christian faith into this 'pagan' territory. Despite the fact that this group are clearly responsible for the recent slaughter of a group of 'heathens', they are still impressed by One Eye - and, invite him to join them as they travel to reclaim the 'Holy Land'.

But, as the travel by boat toward their new destination, the group soon find themselves caught up in a thick and, potentially, unnatural fog (some of the crew are, at least, entirely convinced that it is a curse - though, whether there is anything supernatural at work, here, seems to be a matter of interpretation). When this fog finally clears, they find that they have, somehow, made their way to a strange new land. But, they soon learn that they are not alone - and, that they most certainly aren't welcome.

The way that Valhalla Rising is presented to the audience seems to clearly suggest something much deeper, and more profound, than the fairly straight-forward tale you get when you put it down in writing. It's a tale that is told with very minimal dialogue and a deliberately slow pace (broken up by occasional moments of brutal and shocking violence), that seems intended to hint at something almost mythic. One top of that, there's the character of One Eye, himself - of whom we learn almost nothing.

I have to admit that I spent much of this film's running time trying to figure out exactly what deeper meaning there might be to all of this, buried beneath the surface. I was convinced that there would, perhaps, be parallels to either Norse myth or Christian allegory (or both, even) - or, that there would be some moment of revelation for the audience. Most importantly, I was convinced that the film would all make sense by the end.

You should know, though, that Valhalla Rising is, ultimately, the sort of film that is going to stubbornly refuse to answer any questions you might have. There's elements of the supernatural, here - both in One Eye's apparent ability to dream of future events and also, possibly, in the mysterious fog which may, or may not, have been responsible for transporting them so far from home.

There's also the mystery of One Eye, himself. One Eye seems to take on traits of an almost mythical figure as the film progresses - and, the possible connection between him and the Norse god, Odin, is probably the film's most easily defined symbolism.

But, in each case, the film also refuses to offer up any sort of clear explanation or rationalisation for anything that we see.

It is an impressive looking film, at least - one that makes good use of landscapes that are both beautiful and bleak. And, it is also a film well served by some great performances from its cast. Mads Mikkelsen, in particular, manages to come across as both intimidating and dangerous, without saying a single word - though, credit should also be given to Maarten Stevenson, who provides possibly the most recognisably 'human' element in a film that clearly seems to prefer the deliberately abstract to straight-forward story-telling.

Valhalla Rising makes for a very interesting viewing experience. But, it is also, potentially, a very frustrating one. You are either going to be as fascinated by the film as I was (and, that fascination is going to carry you through to the end) - or, you are going to be so put off by the film's style, and its slow and ponderous pace, that you are likely to give up entirely well before the end credits roll. Honestly, I can't imagine that there is much room for the middle-ground, with a film like this.

As fascinating as I found this film, I don't think I could bring myself to fault anyone who happens to disagree - Valhalla Rising is, quite simply, not a film that is going to appeal to everyone.

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