Sometimes I know I’m going to love a film just from seeing one still. Sure, sometimes this assumption can prove hideously wrong, but on other occasions it can be a perfect presumption.
Arriving at the London Film Festival last year, I picked up the heavily packed programme and started thumbing my way through a head-spinning amount of films, ticking the titles I wanted to see (which was a lot!). Around page 39 I was brought to a sudden halt by the image of a one eyed, heavily marked man on his knees in a field of mud, chained to a huge post. I instantly knew I had to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, so I put a big ring around the listing and made a note of the screenings. One of the only bad points with having a press pass at LFF is you can’t always book to see the films you want and unfortunately Valhalla Rising was one of the films I just had to turn up for and hope there was a ticket left. To my surprise, Winding Refn’s film turned out to be a lot more popular than I’d expected and alas I didn’t get in to any of the screenings. Now, almost seven months later, I finally found myself sitting down with great anticipation ready to watch what I was hoping would be a brutal Viking epic. Thankfully, my expectations weren’t let down.
Valhalla Rising tells the story of One-Eye, a fearsome beast of a Viking warrior, held captive by a clan and forced to fight to the death for their gain. The world in which he lives is unforgiving, he struggles to survive day by day and no man shows him any form of kindness. The only person who offers him even the slightest glimmer of hope, is the young son of his captor Are, who brings him food and tends to his wounds. However, a wild uncontrollable force such as One-Eye can’t be held captive for too long and he inevitably (and rather violently) breaks free from the clan imprisoning him. Accompanied by Are and a legion of ‘God’s own Soldiers’, One-Eye embarks on a voyage to the Holy Land, hoping to finally make his way home. The expedition hits many obstacles along the way though as disorientating fog, restless natives and a drug filled water supply all conspire to ensure this oddball ensemble’s passage is anything but smooth.
For those familiar with Winding Refn’s previous creations, it will be no surprise that this is a no holds-barred, uncompromising, brute of a film that like many of his previous works features a dominating performance from its male lead. The talented director has managed not only to inject the film with the unrelenting violence and physicality the story so deserves, but also fill it with haunting beauty and mesmerizing mystery. Playing a mute warrior with just one eye, it was important Mads Mikkelsen created a purely physical character, bathed in intrigue and feared by all he encounters. Snarling, glaring and beating his way across the screen, it’s certainly a performance to behold and for such a governing role, Mikkelsen’s performance is one of subtleties and restraint (his character could have easily been overblown and over the top). One-Eye isn’t the only star of Valhalla Rising though, as Morten Søborg’s aesthetic treatment of the rugged Scotland locations linger on the screen, creating an unnerving sense of dread and tension for the viewer. Søborg frames Mikkelsen almost as part of the landscape at times, like an immovable object rooted to the land or a stony faced rock jutting from a hillside. In the background, a minimal soundtrack from Peter Peter and Peter Kyed rumbles sporadically throughout the film, combining with heightened sounds of nature to enhance the anxious feel the film creates.
I’ve become all too aware recently that when describing things with my writing I tend to gravitate towards using words starting with the same letter (I think I might be alliterate). It’s a bit of a bad habit I’m trying to get out of……but to summarize, Valhalla Rising is bloody brutal, beautiful and beguiling (perfectly predictable huh?).