CAPSULE: This Danish-British co-production is a sort of minimalist historical epic. A mysterious Norse warrior escapes from slave captivity and joins Crusaders preparing to leave for the Holy Land. Fog and windless seas will send them to a different location. With only sparse dialog, a mute main character, and some strong violence this film is slow, taxing, and brutal. Even with colors subdued, the photography is beautiful and the tone is believable, though far from pleasant. This is Viking life unromanticized--don't expect Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Nicolas Winding Refn directs and co-authors. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Minor Spoiler: I will reveal geographic details and tell a little more of the minimalist plot.
One-Eye (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a mysterious, half-blind, mute warrior kept prisoner like a fighting animal. He is tethered to a pole and pitted against other animal-men in fights to the death. Young Are (Maarten Stevenson) feeds and cares for him. One day One-Eye finds an arrowhead and uses it to kill his master and to escape. He is followed by young Are, the only person in the world who cares for the animal-man. One-Eye encounters some Christians who are new to the land and they are leaving. They are going to go on a Crusade intending to capture Jerusalem. Perhaps with deaths heavy on his conscience One-Eye agrees to join the Crusaders. They set out in a Viking boat, but soon run into windless fog. Drifting for days they find a place where the water is not salty. This is a certain sign they are near land. But rather than finding hostile Muslims they find hostile Indians. This is for the Crusaders a new sort of enemy that few people not from the Americas have ever seen.
VALHALLA RISING is paced slowly and deliberately. The script, written by director Nicolas Winding Refn and by Roy Jacobsen, divides the story into six parts, though without much dialog even the short chapters seem long. This also limits the development of the characters. Some of the chapters also jump around in time making them still more effort to interpret. One-Eye remains enigmatic in his silence. Director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn gives us long stretches atmospheric camerawork without dialog, punctuated by particularly strong violence. Refn had similar violence in his previous film BRONSON, but there was more story between the violent moments in BRONSON. This view of Viking life is probably realistic but often not a pleasure to watch. Much of the budget seems to have gone to Morten Soborg's photography, one of the film's greatest assets.
Mads Mikkelsen makes a particularly foreboding-looking Viking looking stiff and tall with the one lost eye as we watch trying to detect... what? But too often he just stands and looks like he is silently snarling. On the other hand, the Indians look not at all like Indians. They just do not have the chiseled features we have come to expect of Indians. There is certainly some implication of the conflict between the Nordic pagans and the new Christians, but with a script so sparing with dialog the issue is not developed. We just get a feeling that Christians and pagans do not get along.
The film definitely has some points, but overall it is not the kind of film I can whole-heartedly recommend. I would give it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Most sources I see are saying that this film takes place in the year 1000 A.D. However, I see no reference to that date in the film and the Crusades did not begin until about 95 years later. It is more likely this story is set in the 1100s or 1200s. The title does not make sense since unlike Hades or Hell, there is nothing in particular above Valhalla.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0862467
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/valhalla_rising/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper