(I did a preliminary review of this movie yesterday. I’ve watched it a second time now, and am prepared to pontificate.)
Viking, a Russian film directed by Andrei Kravchuk and much anticipated by Viking buffs, arrived last winter with all the acclaim of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime. Critical response was mixed, and the film got almost no US distribution. The DVD is available, though, now, and you can own it. It’s worth viewing, but I expect you’ll agree that it’s a movie in search of an audience.
The film is based on the career of the historical Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev, the man who converted the Russians to Christianity and is revered as a saint. He did not come by his sainthood gently, though, as the film makes clear (the history here isn’t bad, considered in very broad strokes).
Vladimir (Danila Kozlovsky) is the youngest of three brothers, descendants of Vikings, and each the prince of a different Russian town, in the 10th Century. Vladimir is the least of them, not only in age but in status. He’s the son of a slave woman, and touchy on the subject. The eldest brother’s men murder the middle brother, after which Vladimir arranges the killing of the eldest. Now he’s the sole prince of all the Russ, but he has to prove himself worthy. He takes a high-born wife (Aleksandra Bortich) by force, and digs up and restores what they call “Father’s God,” a bloodthirsty idol worshiped by his late father, who was revered for his strength. Vladimir hopes to acquire that same strength, at the price of human sacrifice.
Meanwhile he has taken his late brother’s wife, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), into his protection, intrigued by the peace her Christian faith gives her. His brother’s followers are determined to rescue Irina and avenge their prince, and make an alliance with the fierce Pecheneg horsemen. Vladimir brings in Scandinavian Vikings as mercenaries, though paying them turns out to be a problem. Meanwhile, Vladimir is struggling with his conscience, tortured by the memory of his crimes.
Resolution is reached as Vladimir reaches out to the “Romans” (Byzantines), who offer not only military strength but healing for his soul-sickness.
The film has its virtues. It opens with a pretty rousing hunt for what I assume is a giant musk ox, and that’s impressive, though some CGI moments don’t work perfectly. There are pretty good battle scenes, though they’re not very authentic historically.
The style of the film is the “medieval grunge” look that’s become so fashionable – everywhere there is mud, and everyone wears gray or brown (except for the Byzantines, and there’s a thematic reason for that). The men’s haircuts aren’t quite as silly as some you see in the History Channel series, and anyway the Slavs were into head-shaving, so it’s more appropriate here. The armor isn’t very good, tending to leather and metal plates riveted on jerkins. That’s OK for poor guys, but princes and their bodyguards ought to wear mail. The helmets are fair, but they should be brighter. The horses the Russ ride are, to the best of my knowledge, too big for the period.
A serious problem with the American release is the very low quality subtitles. The translation is bad and hard to follow (they consistently write “trader” for “traitor”), and sometimes the words flash on the screen so briefly there’s no time to read them.
But the whole project has what I’d call an existential problem. This movie doesn’t know what it is. It’s a bloody war movie with a Christian message. It’s a Christian movie with nude sex scenes. Who did they expect would buy tickets?
My own suspicion about Viking is that it was a pet project for Vladimir Putin. He is, after all, the hero’s namesake. It’s not unlikely that he sees his career as a parallel one – he started as a ruthless “cold” warrior, and brought on himself the guilt of many crimes and injustices. Later he embraced the Orthodox faith and reinvented himself as a hero of Christianity, the protector of the faith.
Most people don’t really buy him in that role. And I fear they won’t buy it in this movie, either.
Still, by the (abysmal) standards of Viking movies, this one has to deserve a place near the top. Recommended, but with cautions for elements described in this review.