Don’t watch this looking for a Hollywood-style sword-n-savagery action flick (although there is plenty of bloodily realistic hacking, maiming and killing). This is not the Mads Mikkelsen you know from Hannibal. This is experimental, art-house, risk-taking film-making. It is weird and beautiful and brutal. It’s also minimalist, surreal, philosophical and prone to showing extended clips of Mads the mute, one-eyed warrior gazing soulfully against a stormy sky.
If you’ve seen any of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s creations – the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Drive, or Only God Forgives – then you’ll be braced for what to expect. Refn has a gift for extracting massively powerful performances from his leading actors (most notably Tom Hardy and Ryan Gosling), and Valhalla delivers a monstrous turn from Mikkelsen.
It’s all the more extraordinary because Refn takes ‘stripped back simplicity’ to its extremes in this film. There’s precious little dialogue; Mikkelsen stays silent throughout, and there’s naff-all exposition. The minimal plot isn’t exactly hard to follow but if you can’t pay attention then no one is going to give you a handy re-cap part-way through.
The jokey ‘making of’ special feature doesn’t do justice to the splendour of the cinematography, nor the subtlety of the actors’ performances. The premise that a bunch of Vikings get lost on a boat hardly seems fertile ground for philosophical debate, but somehow Refn stirs up substantial observations on religious proselytising by force, the nature of belief, and the ongoing struggle between human morality and mortality.
Then there’s the brief, balletic and utterly bloody fight sequences. Blink and you’ll miss them. Mikkelsen wields an axe with absolute assurance, giving the violence the heft of authenticity. Just as swiftly the mists rise and the characters drift into hallucinations, swirling with symbolism; returning to the source.
Valhalla is unsettling, ambiguous and outright odd. Loved it.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Valhalla is available to rent or buy at Amazon