Long­ships, broadswords and plenty of pil­lag­ing in TV drama

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

THE first cou­ple of hours of His­tory TV’s Sun­day-night sched­ule be­longs to God. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Cana­dian spe­cialty net will air the first two hours of the am­bi­tious Mark Bur­nett/Roma Downey-pro­duced minis­eries The Bi­ble.

Af­ter that, how­ever, a much dif­fer­ent ros­ter of gods takes over — Thor, Odin, Freyja, Hel and the trick­ster Loki, who in­spire the pas­sion and plun­der­ing that drives Vik­ings through a nine-hour minis­eries run.

Vik­ings, an in­ter­na­tional co-pro­duc­tion led by Canada’s Take 5 Pro­duc­tions and Ire­land’s World 2000, takes on the dif­fi­cult task of re­count­ing the fa­mil­iar Vik­ing tales of raid­ing, loot­ing, raping and mas­sacring, while at the same time cre­at­ing a cen­tral clus­ter of lik­able and at least some­what sym­pa­thetic characters.

Se­ries cre­ator/writer Michael Hirst ( Elizabeth, The Tu­dors) suc­ceeds to a cer­tain ex­tent, by fo­cus­ing on the in­hab­i­tants of one Vik­ing vil­lage and the fric­tion that de­vel­ops be­tween a chief­tain who’s set in his ways and a tribesman who has am­bi­tions that reach be­yond the ac­cepted rou­tine of farm­ing and war­ring.

Rag­nar Loth­brok (played by Travis Fim­mel) is a soft-spo­ken but in­tensely driven fel­low who has grown tired of the same-again pro­nounce­ments of lo­cal ruler Earl Har­ald­son (Gabriel Byrne) — each spring, the Earl com-

Star­ring Travis Fim­mel, Kath­eryn Win­nick, Gabriel Byrne, Jes­salyn Gil­sig and Clive Standen Sun­day at 9 p.m. His­tory

out of five mands his forces to board ships and sail east to the Baltic lands, raid­ing the same set of vil­lages and bring­ing home an ever-di­min­ish­ing pile of plun­dered riches.

Rag­nar, how­ever, has a plan. Af­ter the leader dis­misses Rag­nar’s sug­ges­tion that a voy­age to the west might pro­duce greater re­sults — my ships, my rules, the short-sighted Earl in­sists — the re­bel­lious farmer en­lists the help of Floki (Gustaf Skars­gard), a lo­cal jester and mis­chief-maker who also hap­pens to build boats.

With his own ship, Rag­nar can as­sem­ble a crew in se­cret and set sail for the west­ern des­ti­na­tions that have long been the stuff of ru­mours.

Rag­nar’s wife, Lagertha (Cana­dian Kath­eryn Win­nick), who is much more than an av­er­age Vik­ing housewife (her nick­name is Shield Maiden, and she’s rather handy with a broadsword), wishes to join her hus­band on his quest, but he re­fuses, telling her she must re­main home to tend to the farm and their chil­dren.

Us­ing a new­fan­gled nav­i­ga­tion de­vice he ac­quired from a mys­te­ri­ous friend, Rag­nar and his crew — led by equally re­bel­lious brother Rollo (Clive Standen) — sail west and even­tu­ally reach the shore of Eng­land, where they drop an­chor and head in­land to raid a nearby monastery.

When they re­turn home with a ship­ful of loot, Earl Har­ald­son is both en­raged and im­pressed. He al­lows Rag­nar to plan a sec­ond voy­age; this time, du­ti­ful hus­band Rag­nar in­vites Lagertha to join in, leav­ing the farm and chil­dren in the care of Athel­stan (Ge­orge Blag­den), a young Chris­tian monk he cap­tured and en­slaved on the first west­ern foray.

The Vik­ings’ sec­ond trip to Eng­land is more chal­leng­ing — rather than en­coun­ter­ing a hud­dled mass of pray­ing monks, Rag­nar’s band faces off against a fully out­fit­ted army and might fight for the trea­sure they plan to take home.

It is, at times, em­phat­i­cally bloody stuff. But Hirst’s script does a de­cent job of balancing stereo­typ­i­cal Vik­ing misbehaviour and solidly grounded hu­man drama. He doesn’t suc­ceed in mak­ing them com­pletely sym­pa­thetic (re­mem­ber the raid­ing, mur­der­ing, pil­lag­ing and raping?), but his characters are suf­fi­ciently in­ter­est­ing that most who tune in to Sun­day’s pre­mière will be in­vested enough that they’ll re­turn for at least an­other in­stal­ment or two.

The Cana­dian com­po­nent of Vik­ings also in­cludes Jes­salyn Gil­sig ( Glee, Bos­ton Pub­lic), who por­trays Earl Har­ald­son’s schem­ing wife, Siggy. Her idea of fun is flirt­ing with as­sorted tribes­men just long enough to make the Earl so jeal­ous that he has the tar­gets of her af­fec­tion killed.

She’s a dark pres­ence, but in a se­ries that is — both in tone and colour and in sub­ject mat­ter — mostly grim and shrouded in damp mist, she fits right in.

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