I’m a bit behind on Viking movies, and especially on writing up those I have watched, but I finally got around to watching Viking: The Darkest Day.
It’s 793 and the Vikings have found their way to Lindisfarne. The movie opens with captive monks on the beach. They cry out to God and pray for deliverance. A Viking warrior approaches. The camera angle is low down and from slightly behind the warrior so that his hand, dripping blood, is centre screen. The approach happens in slow motion. All very dramatic. In this way, we are introduced to the Viking leader Hadrada [sic] who wants the Lindisfarne Gospels. He wants God’s power for his own and thinks that the book will give him that. In this way, a chase movie is set up.
Hadrada and his band of Vikings (numbering only five of them) set out in pursuit of the young monk Hereward and Abbot Athelstan who have the gospels and are trying to get to Iona, where they will be safe. Along the way, they pick up Aethelwulf of Wessex, a warrior who appears to be part of a holy warrior order dedicated to protecting the gospels, if I understood that part correctly. They also encounter and rescue Denegifu, a Pictish woman, have a brief fight with one member of a band of bandits, and meet the members of what appears to be an apocalypse cult with very goth make-up.
So, what did I think of it? I’m really not sure. I was not moved by it. There were no moments where I felt any sense of tension. It felt like the outcome was never seriously in doubt, and the slow pacing of the movie contributed to this. Even the bloody violence and the scene where Abbot Athelstan was raped lacked emotional impact. The movie was not so bad that I needed mind bleach to exorcise it from my brain, but it was not great either. It fell in that area that is probably hardest to write about because it lacked superlatives (or maybe I’m just dead inside when it comes to Viking movies these days). Here are a few points I took away from it.
As is to be expected of a Viking movie, there were only two women in the whole cast. Vikings, as Judith Jesch noted in her book Women in the Viking Age, are thought of as unequivocally male. This is strongly reflected in the majority of Viking movies where women are prizes to be won or stolen, with only a few notable exceptions. Denegifu has to be rescued, but then comes into her own as the wise woman who knows the herbs to heal Hereward. For much of the movie, despite being present she seems to have little else to do, although her final actions are crucial to the final outcome. Eara, the other woman, is the leader of the apocalypse cult. Neither of these are big roles, but I suppose we should be thankful that neither woman becomes a random love interest for no good reason other than that the writers thought it was necessary.
The Vikings conformed to the norms for most Viking movies. Their leader made decisions for the others and met opposition and alternative suggestions with threats of violence. They act like the members of the Glasgow street gang that James Patrick observed in the sixties in his book A Glasgow Gang Observed. It is clear that the Viking most willing to go to violent extremes is the Viking in charge and that any in-group conflict will always result in death. On the plus side, they are depicted as more human than in some movies with a better sense of why they are pursuing the Gospels.
The cinematography was odd. The colours were washed out to the point of being black and white throughout most of the movie. Only occasionally did we see brighter colours. I suspect that this was intended to represent something, but I really have no clue what. I might steel myself to watch it again and try to work out what was going on there.
For the rest, the movie conformed to standard medieval movie tropes. There was little attempt to adhere to any known standard of actual Viking Age dress and most of the characters wore shades of brown, because everyone in medieval movieland wears drab colours. Hadrada did wear a variation of the Gjermundbu helmet, so there was that, but the swords were clearly not Viking Age. One character did have runes on his axe which proves he was a Viking though. It seems churlish to pick out these details, when this movie really could have been a generic fantasy or historical piece with the Lindisfarne Gospels as the Magical Medieval Macguffin that drives the action. With that in mind, there is no reason why the technology should have been restricted to just Viking Age material.
In sum, I did not hate this movie, but I did not like it all that much either. The South Welsh countryside it was filmed in was lovely, the acting was pretty decent, and it tickled me that the roles of some of the monks were taken by members of Taibach RFC, but the plot and pacing did little for me. On top of that, the movie I watched was not the movie the blurb on the DVD case suggested it would be. I was expecting much worse! I am certain that it will appeal to some though, and I think that I would have enjoyed it more in my teens. If you’re curious, you can watch the trailer to see the best bits.