Valhalla Rising

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

25 September

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066

On this day in 1066, an Anglo Saxon army led by King Harold Godwinson went into battle against a Norwegian army led by Harald Hardrada. The English (ie Anglo Saxon) army numbered about 15,000, the invading army around 9,000. As the numbers suggest, the English won, though at a cost of at least five thousand men (estimates put the losses on the other side at around six thousand, or two thirds of the army). Why does this battle matter? For a start it marks the last time the Anglo Saxons would win anything – three weeks later Godwinson went into battle again, against the invading Normans at Hastings, and lost both his life and his kingdom to the invader William aka the Conqueror. This would have profound effects on the English language – it remains Germanic at base but as a result of that invasion it now carries a huge superstructure of Romance words. The battle also marks the end of what is known as the Viking Age, the era when extraordinary sailors and adventurers from Northern Europe would spread out across the world, leaving fair- and red-haired reminders of their presence in places as far-flung as Portugal, Ireland, Greenland and Turkey. The Vikings even got as far as Newfoundland, and probably spent 400 years trading with the indigent Native “Americans” (for want of a better word) – at least archaeological evidence of a Norwegian coin found in Maine seems to suggest as much.

Valhalla Rising (2009, dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)

After the success of Drive, the other films of the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn came under more scrutiny. Most, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson certainly, concern themselves with aspects of masculinity. As does Valhalla Rising, a remarkable film whose reputation will probably grow as the years go by. Brutal and dirty from the off, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute, one-eyed Viking prize fighter reputed to have been “brought up from hell” and now being yanked about the hellish countryside by his owners from one brutal beat-em-up event to the next. In one early scene, Mikkelsen’s character has tied up his foe, who gives him his finest “damn you to hell” speech full of vitriol. In a Hollywood film this would be the cue for some bromantic “I respect a man who speaks his mind, yadda yadda…”. In Refn’s film it’s the cue for Mikkelsen to slice open the man’s belly and pull out his guts. If you like your films stygian, cloudy, bleak, rainy, pocked with flint, nordic as hell (I think it’s filmed in Scotland in fact), this is for you. But it doesn’t begin and end with hellish violence. Refn is actually more interested in the history than he’s at first letting on. The Crusades feature, as does the arrival of Christianity in a heathen land, as does – if I’m not mistaken (though it is hard to tell) – the discovery of America. It is fabulously, almost hilariously bleak, almost wordless, but there’s a scope to it which is as intense as Terrence Malick, though a Malick restricted to a drab palette of brown, grey and green. Mesmerising.

Why Watch?

  • A refreshing dose of in-your-face brutality
  • Mikkelsen effortlessly trumping any number of pretenders – Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler and Viggo Mortensen can’t compete
  • An outstanding exercise in the creation of mood
  • The action movie meets arthouse, convincingly

Valhalla Rising – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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