A splendid co-production between Denmark and the United Kingdom, Valhalla Rising is an extraordinary work set during the time of Vikings. Hollywood has never managed to deal well with Viking lore, and after this film, perhaps they should not because I am not confident they would ever achieve what is achieved in this masterful work, one of the great visual experiences at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The picture opens on a desolate coast where the heads of warring tribes meet for battle. For many years, One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) has been the greatest warrior, but is treated like an animal, let out only to fight and then essentially fed and watered in his cage, where he can do no harm. His only real connection to humanity is the young boy who brings him his food and water everyday, and even then it is a prickly relationship. When a band of Christians take One Eye and the boy with them on a journey, how can they know it is fraught with disaster? How will it impact their lives, and how will their lives be forever altered?
There is always a different feel to a film in a foreign language that cannot be helped. Gestures mean something else in another country, the manner in which people speak may mean something else, a glance can speak volumes, and if done properly (as this is) they can create a world that once existed that we will believe in without question, simply because they present it so well and their belief in it is all-encompassing. Think about Star Wars and that great opening moment when the smaller ship is being followed by a star destroyer; Lucas establishes that this world is unlike anything we have seen before in just a few seconds… the same thing happens here.
Nicolas Winding Refn does a brilliant job sweeping the audience away to another time and place. Like Apocalpyse Now the filmmaker plunges us into his world in the opening frames of the film, establishing what is happening and where we are very quickly. The images in this film are often entirely original, as I have never seen landscape like this before. There is something alien about the landscape – something fresh and very new.
Refn gives the film a gritty realism, with lived-in characters and a strong narrative throughout. The battle scenes are ferocious and realistic, with much hacking of limbs and brutal warfare, and One Eye being a most fearsome warrior. Though the film looks like an epic, it is surprisingly short, clocking in at 90 minutes, and it moves swiftly, as I would have watched much more of the film.
There is nothing of the sterotypical Viking lore in the film, no helmets with horns, no goofy looking boats – this is a more authentic approach to the Viking legends than anything we have seen before. I thought of The Vikings from 1958 with Kirk Douglas and began to snicker… nope, this is how it’s done boys.