Great Films You Need To See – Valhalla Rising (2009)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout September with the theme of ‘the great outdoors’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Nicolas Winding Refn’s Vikings and violence drama Valhalla Rising.

If “art is an act of violence” as the uncompromising Nicolas Winding Refn has attested, then his vicious Viking abstraction Valhalla Rising must surely belong in the Louvre.

Valhalla Rising - powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn's ouevre so far

Valhalla Rising – powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s oeuvre so far

Cut to the bone in terms of narrative and dialogue, the only thing more harsh than the inevitability of (often brutal) death in Refn’s powerful and primeval journey into apocalyptic dread is the bleakly beautiful Scottish landscapes in which the film was shot.

Coming off the back of Bronson (2008), Refn’s penchant for anti-heroes takes us back to 1000AD and Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, a mute Norse savage who wreaks a terrible vengeance against his captors and, following his escape, agrees to accompany a group of Viking Christians in search of the Holy Land.

One-Eye’s only companion is a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who believes the silent warrior has been delivered to this godforsaken place from hell. The group’s devout leader (Ewan Stewart) is confident that, by accompanying them on their quest across the ocean, One-Eye can be cleansed of his sins. The land they finally arrive at, however, is far from holy and no amount of faith can prepare them for the dawning realisation that they are trapped in purgatory.

You don't want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising feels like a curious mash-up of the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson, while its stark reminder of man’s hubristic folly in trying to conquer nature is Aguirre, The Wrath Of God-level Werner Herzog.

The film’s hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone’s taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen’s towering central performance and Morten Søborg’s arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film’s central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as “silent warrior” and “hell”), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.

A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.

The drugs don't work in Valhalla Rising

The drugs don’t work in Valhalla Rising

Their growing despair is allowed to manifest when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013).

Mikkelsen is often filmed side on in extreme close-up, his immovable features set against the equally implacable landscape. Scotland has arguably never looked more alien or more beautiful and its unforgiving nature cruelly exposes the human weaknesses of the Christians, particularly the leader who is seemingly willing to sacrifice anyone in order to build the new Jerusalem he so blindly believes possible.

He's called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

He’s called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

Perhaps tellingly, the final two remaining Christians, when everything else is lost, take to following the heathen One-Eye, whether it be out of fear of death, an utter loss of faith or both.

The success of Refn’s follow-up Drive (2011) has cast a large shadow over the director’s career and sadly pulled the focus away from the likes of Valhalla Rising. It’s a pity as the film is powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of his oeuvre so far.

Advertisements

Review – Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Scottish play has had a long association with the big screen spanning more than a century, with some adaptations more tragic than others.

The Scottish play has never have looked so eerily cinematic, but the sound and fury at the savage heart of Kurzel's vision fails to truly lift off the page, denying this Macbeth a place among the truly great screen Shakespeares

The Scottish play has never have looked so eerily cinematic, but the sound and fury at the savage heart of Kurzel’s vision fails to truly lift off the page, denying this Macbeth a place among the truly great screen Shakespeares

Alongside the more traditional imaginings of the Bard’s timeless tale of treachery, misguided ambition and revenge – most notably Orson Welles’ 1948 offering and Roman Polanski’s celebrated 1971 depiction – Macbeth has, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, also lent itself to more dynamic adaptations, in particular Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Throne Of Blood (1957), which transposes the setting from the Scottish highlands to feudal Japan.

This latest conceptualization, courtesy of Australian director Justin Kurzel, is arguably the most visually arresting Macbeth yet seen on screen.

Michael Fassbender has his 300 moment in Macbeth

Michael Fassbender has his 300 moment in Macbeth

Whilst Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) has been invoked, presumably more for the use of war paint, while the slo-mo combat brings to mind Zack Snyder’s battle-porn 300 (2006), the film that most resembles Macbeth, both in its brutally beautiful visual style and tone is Nicolas Winding Refn’s underseen Valhalla Rising (2009).

Working with Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw again following their collaboration on Snowtown (2011), Kurzel shrouds many of the early scenes in an eerie mist that pours over the unforgiving landscape and symbolises the confusion and madness that takes hold, while later scenes resemble Dante’s Inferno, with a hellish blood-red palette engulfing the characters.

All's well that ends well? Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and the good lady wife (Marion Cotillard) in Macbeth

All’s well that ends well? Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and the good lady wife (Marion Cotillard) in Macbeth

This militarised adaptation, all shock and awe, is scored to suitably portentous effect by Kurzel’s brother Jed, with a generous use of drums that sound like distant explosions drawing ever closer.

Whilst there can be no denying Macbeth‘s visual impact, the film’s greatest strength also, inversely, becomes its most pronounced weakness as it comes to dominate everything and takes away from the work being done by Michael Fassbender’s title character and his supporting cast.

Banquo (Paddy Considine) ain't too happy in Macbeth

Banquo (Paddy Considine) ain’t too happy in Macbeth

Fassbender and Kurzel have spoken of their Macbeth as being the victim of post traumatic stress disorder, left hollowed out by the soulless savagery of war and the loss of a child. Instead of playing this in an exaggerated fashion, Fassbender instead internalises his pain; however, this more introspective portrayal of the King of Scotland can get drowned out by everything else going on.

Marion Cotillard makes some interesting choices as Lady Macbeth and the overly ambitious malevolence found in so many other portrayals is stripped back here, but her character’s slide into madness feels rushed and inauthentic and a lack of chemistry with Fassbender means it can be difficult to buy into their relationship.

Sound and fury: Michael Fassbender stars in Macbeth

Sound and fury: Michael Fassbender stars in Macbeth

On a more positive note, Sean Harris strikes the right note as Macduff, while Paddy Considine does a lot with what he’s given as Macbeth’s man-at-arms Banquo.

The Scottish play has never have looked so eerily cinematic, but the sound and fury at the savage heart of Kurzel’s vision fails to truly lift off the page, denying this Macbeth a place among the truly great screen Shakespeares.