You can tell very quickly that this is going to be bleak. It starts with a Viking prisoner forced to pit fight in a ring of black mud somewhere in the bleakest coldest parts of Scandanavia, and then it just gets bleaker. This film is so bleak that they had to film it in Scotland because Scandanavia presumably wasn’t bleak enough. If you imagine all the gloss and glamour stripped away from historical fantasy epics like Braveheart or Gladiator and you’d probably get something like Valhalla Rising.
So the film was shot in Scotland and the Vikings are played by Scots apart from the Mads Mikkelsen who plays the silent protagonist One Eye – a very different role from the blood weeping Bond villain. There’s no heroic posturing or even really any heroes, just burly, hairy Vikings (Scots) in a desolate environment (Scotland) being bleak (Scottish) and occasionally speaking. There is not much speaking. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, has called it a science fiction film, which is a bit confusing, but it’s perhaps because it is a metaphor for human evolution and existence: captivity to freedom by way of suffering and religion. It would be possible to discuss the significance of the different events in the film at great length and there are obvious parallels with Norse mythology: Odin only had one eye for example, but I think the film is still very poignant without thinking about it too much: you don’t need a knowledge of Norse mythology to appreciate it which is fortunate because I am not the sort of person that does much research.
Despite being quite abstract at times it still feels very genuine and that’s something that is missing in the historical epic genre. Where most films would glamourise the violence and build up to bigger and messier battles, Valhalla Rising includes violence as just a brutal fact of life. And where most films would be about hero worship and might whitewash over any dubious character traits, Valhalla Rising presents it’s hero more ambiguously – there is no glamourising here: the protagonist does not always act heroically, and never talks – a far cry from the positively chatty William ‘never take my freedom’ Wallace or Maximus ‘in this life or the next’ Somethingroman. That’s probably my favourite thing about the film: it feels like real history while as entertaining as a film like Gladiator might be it never feels even remotely believable.
It’s probably not for everyone, for a start there are a few very violent scenes but there is not a hell of a lot of action. And a lot of people will doubtlessly find it hard to watch due to the long, slow, ponderous shots. Lots of shots of people just sitting there and thinking serious Viking thoughts. But it’s such a good looking film I was not put off by this noticed this personally – Scotland has a desolate beauty and the cinematography is fantastic, they could use the film in the Visit Scotland advertising (come to Scotland! Wrestle in mud! Sit on hills and stare at nothing in particular! It’s bleak but pretty in a way!). It’s like the polar opposite of the trashy 300, but One Eye would totally beat King Leonidas in a real fight. Also, it’s hard to understand why there are not more films about the Vikings – don’t get me wrong, I like a Roman movie as much as the next guy – but surely there is room in the world for a few more big hairy Viking movies?