Ed­die Cock­rell on why Vik­ings are the genre du jour

The time has come to see Vik­ings in a new light

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ed­die Cock­rell


THE sea­son one cliffhanger end­ing of Vik­ings was fairly in­evitable as these things go: newly minted earl of the me­dieval Scan­di­na­vian vil­lage of Kat­te­gat, Rag­nar Loth­brok (Aus­tralian model turned ac­tion hero Travis Fim­mel), con­tem­plates the tummy of Princess Aus­lag (Bris­bane-born model Alyssa Suther­land), whom he has just im­preg­nated on re­turn­ing from a mis­sion to Go­ta­land.

At the same time his schem­ing sib­ling Rollo (Clive Standen) de­cides to throw his lot in with Jarl Borg (Thor­b­jorn Harr), an ag­gres­sive chal­lenger to the real es­tate claimed by Rag­nar’s new ally King Horik (Donal Logue). “I will fight with you against my brother,” he says, some­what anti-cli­mac­ti­cally.

Mean­while, back in Kat­te­gat, a plague has claimed the re­spec­tive daugh­ters of Rag­nar and Siggy (Jes­salyn Gil­sig), widow of the for­mer earl, Har­ald­son (Gabriel Byrne), killed by Rag­nar in a fight to the death. Rag­nar’s shield­maiden wife Lagertha (Kath­eryn Win­nick), who has al­ready been hit on by Rollo, be­comes con­cerned about her hus­band’s well­be­ing and con­sults the blind Seer (John Ka­vanagh), only to be re­buffed be­cause the news is too grim.

Still with us? Young monk Athel­stan (Ge­orge Blag­den), kid­napped by Rag­nar dur­ing his maiden raid on a monastery in Northum­bria, is re­vealed to be cling­ing to his Chris­tian­ity, de­spite sport­ing Vik­ing garb and re­nounc­ing Christ three times pub­licly in prepa­ra­tion for be­com­ing a hu­man sac­ri­fice that is be­stowed on an­other when the sub­terfuge is dis­cov­ered. Flaky but bril­liant boat­builder Floki (Gustaf Skars­gard) has ac­quired a con­sort in Helga (Maude Hirst), though it doesn’t seem to have mod­i­fied his ec­cen­tric­i­ties much. Fi­nally, Rag­nar’s young son Bjorn (Nathan O’Toole), fresh from the rite of pas­sage into man­hood be­stowed by the now-dead ex-Earl Har­ald­son, is omi­nously dis­ap­prov­ing of Dad’s dal­liance.

These are just some of the in­trigues to be found in the most re­cent break­out hit se­ries Vik­ings, the sec­ond episode of the sec­ond sea­son of which be­gan last week.

While per­haps not as much of a small-screen jug­ger­naut as True De­tec­tive, Down­ton Abbey or The Walk­ing Dead, the show has sev­eral things go­ing for it.

Pol­ished but not too pol­ished, vi­o­lent but not graph­i­cally so in the way of some other shows, Vik­ings has re­ceived crit­i­cal praise and high rat­ings for its in­tri­cate but eas­ily di­gested sto­ry­lines, lusty act­ing, mag­nif­i­cent scenery (the Cana­dian-Ir­ish co-pro­duc­tion is shot on lo­ca­tion in Ire­land and Nor­way) and elab­o­rate pro­duc­tion and cos­tume de­sign cour­tesy of many of the crafts­peo­ple and crew who first worked to­gether on Brave­heart.

It also hews closely to the the­matic and nar­ra­tive play­book pi­o­neered by shows such as The So­pra­nos: men and women in vi­o­lent and high­risk vo­ca­tions, of­ten out­side the law, work might­ily to bal­ance their pro­fes­sional and fam­ily lives while in­dulging in all man­ner of sin and vice — only to find, to their naive sur­prise and cha­grin, the chil­dren for whom they’ve laboured so hard to have bet­ter lives are turn­ing into younger ver­sions of them­selves.

Seen in this light, the events of Vik­ings are a far cry from the way they’ve been por­trayed pre­vi­ously on screen. There was a time when movies about manly Norse­men teetered pre­car­i­ously be­tween ac­tion and camp: think the 1958 film The Vik­ings, in which Kirk Dou­glas and Tony Cur­tis play the cru­sad­ing sons of Ernest Borg­nine’s Rag­nar (and no, Cur­tis never ut­tered the oft-quoted Bronx-in­flected honk “Yonda lies the cas­tle of my fad­dah da king” in any of his films, much less this one).

The 1980s Ice­landic “Vik­ing tril­ogy” be­gun by di­rec­tor Hrafn Gunnlaugs­son’s When the Raven Flies (1984) is worth watch­ing and avail­able on YouTube, as are high­lights from the 1987 se­quel In the Shadow of the Raven and clips from 2007’s Em­bla, which is, con­fus­ingly, a “di­rec­tor’s cut” of a 1991 fea­ture, The White Vik­ing.

In most of these films the role of women con­sisted largely of cook­ing, do­ing laun­dry, sub­mit­ting to their men and flee­ing dan­ger with their chil­dren. In fact, you’ve got to look long and hard to even find the fe­male of the species in writer-di­rec­tor Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn’s 2009 Vik­ing saga Val­halla Ris­ing, in which Mads Mikkelsen plays a largely silent Norse war­rior named One-Eye.

Not so in Vik­ings, as Win­nick’s Lagertha is a skilled fighter who re­pels two in­trud­ers while her hus­band is away rap­ing and pil­lag­ing. (There’s much rap­ing and pil­lag­ing in this show, in keep­ing with the play­book’s dic­tum that the “mod­ern” an­tag­o­nist must be as re­pel­lent as is pos­si­ble while still gar­ner­ing on­go­ing in­ter­est and sup­port from view­ers.) In one scene Lagertha and Rag­nar have the mother of all mar­i­tal spats, throw­ing each other around their cramped hut un­til an ex­as­per­ated Bjorn breaks them up; then they have sex, as you do.

Yet Vik­ings is much more than The So­pra­nos in cos­tume, thanks to cre­ator and sea­son one writer Michael Hirst. He comes by the se­ries’ ve­rac­ity le­git­i­mately, as his fil­mog­ra­phy reads like a vivid his­tory text­book: he wrote El­iz­a­beth and El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age, both star­ring Cate Blanchett, for the big screen, and is, ac­cord­ing to his agency’s web­site, work­ing on projects in­volv­ing Alexan­der the Great, the Medi­cis, Mary Queen of Scotts, Madame Tus­saud and Mao Ze­dong. His tele­vi­sion cred­its in­clude the se­ries Camelot and The Tu­dors, as well as films about Casanova and Pope John Paul II.

As the se­ries pro­gresses, Fim­mel’s Rag­nar is noth­ing short of rev­e­la­tory. The fire in his eyes and the sto­icism he is forced to bring to bear re­mind one of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, re­spec­tively. The en­tire cast seems shrewdly cho­sen thus far, with the sin­is­ter comic re­lief of Skars­gard’s Floki in the same ball­park as Bruce Spence’s Gyro Cap­tain in Mad Max 2.

So what’s in store for sea­son two? In place of the to­ken es­tab­lished star rep­re­sented in sea­son one by Byrne, Li­nus Roache, late of Law & Or­der, joins the cast as King Ecbert of Wes­sex, with Alexan­der Lud­wig re­plac­ing O’Toole as Bjorn. The em­pha­sis on the shad­owy pres­ence of Norse gods in ev­ery­day life continues, as does the fric­tion be­tween broth­ers. And when it comes to new worlds to con­quer, there’s a lot of ma­te­rial avail­able: the real-life Rag­nar be­gan a reign of Vik­ing strong­men who ter­rorised neigh­bour­ing coun­tries for 400 years.

Vik­ings, Mon­days, 8.35pm, SBS One

Graeme Blun­dell re­turns next week

Travis Fim­mel as Rag­nar Loth­brok and, be­low, Alyssa

Suther­land as Princess As­laug

in Vik­ings

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