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British Cinema, Nordic Cinema

BIFF 12: Valhalla Rising (Denmark/UK 2009)

Mads Mikkelson is 'One Eye' – a captive used for combat.

I was rather surprised by this film partly because a typo in the festival programme suggested that it ran for 142 mins – implying some kind of epic. In fact it’s only 90 minutes. Although I knew about director Nicholas Winding Refn, I hadn’t seen any of his previous films, so I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the film.

There isn’t much plot. Mads Mikkelson is the central character, introduced as little more than a caged animal pushed into combat by his masters on the windswept mountains of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands of Scotland some time around the year 1000 AD. When he escapes he kills his captors in a ferocious assault, but spares the young boy who has been feeding him. Eventually they meet a group of Christian Vikings who claim to be on their way to ‘win back’ Jerusalem. ‘One Eye’ – as the boy names the central character for obvious reasons – decides that the two of them will join the crusade. However, after an age drifting through the fog, the longboat arrives in an estuary of a ‘new land’ – where One Eye will find Valhalla – or Hell.

The film is minimal and elemental. One Eye never speaks and the others mutter relatively few lines of dialogue (in contemporary Scots). The obvious comparisons in the final third of the film are Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God and Terence Malick’s The New World. Some commentators mention Tarkovsky and at times I thought of Apocalypse Now. Refn’s budget was much lower than for these classic films. Everything was filmed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands (Skye, I think) and this is the latest of several Danish-Scottish official co-productions (including the work of Lone Scherfig). The only other star name that I recognised was Gary Lewis. There is an electronic, ‘industrial metal’ score by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed.

I’m not sure what I think of the film. Certainly, it makes you ponder what it would have been like to be the first European on shore in a new land when your ‘civilisation’ had done little to prepare you for what was to come. The film is quite ‘realist’ in its attempt to represent the realities of brutality – brains bashed out by boulders and axes, beheadings and disembowelment – and the simplicity of early Christianity. As long as you don’t expect Kirk Douglas or the rippling muscles of 300, you might find this a sobering experience.

Distributed by Vertigo in the UK, the film is set for release in April/May in the UK. It’s already out in France and some other European territories. Vertigo don’t seem to be promoting a HD trailer. Their website points you to YouTube:

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