Sunday 3 May 2015

The Salvation by Levring & Jensen

A Danish Western made in South Africa sounds like a recipe for a disaster. In fact it turns out to be a recipe for a masterpiece. 

What's more, it's evident from the first few seconds that The Salvation is going to be a winner. As soon as we get a glimpse of Mads Mikkelsen (so terrific in Hannibal and Charlie Countryman) it's obvious that this movie is going to work — he looks perfect for the hero of a Spaghetti Western.

The Salvation is a harrowing revenge story. It's also a magnificent film and a classic western, one of the two or three best in the genre in the last twenty years. It had begun to look like the Western was a lost art form. (Although The Homesman was an excellent film, for my money it wasn't really a Western.) 

And it seemed that Hollywood could turn out nothing but disappointing near-misses like The Missing and duds like Open Range or 3.10 to Yuma (a remake of an Elmore Leonard classic that falls to pieces spectacularly). Or — god help us — The Lone Ranger. Indeed, one of the few decent examples in recent times was Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. Despite being an hilarious deconstruction of movie cliches, it was also a proper specimen of the genre and beautifully photographed to boot, with a good music score.

But now comes The Salvation, a title with an unintended (?) extra layer of meaning in terms of the fate of a whole movie genre. I was going to say that this film has single-handedly revived the Spaghetti Western — with immense skill and style. 

But on reflection I'm forced to concede that Tarrantino's Django Unchained — which is certainly intended as a Spaghetti Western, indeed the Spaghetti Western to end all Spaghetti Westerns — beat the Danish film makers to the punch.

But Django Unchained was so post-modern it hardly seemed like a Western. The Salvation is a much more pure and serious example of the genre. It is also one of the most gorgeously photographed films I've ever seen, thanks to cinematographer Jens Schlosser. The sequence of a stage coach ride at night, with the vehicle lit inside by butter yellow oil lamps and a deep blue sky outside, was ravishingly beautiful.

The film is splendidly directed by Kristian Levring whose last feature was a Danish thriller called Fear Me Not and superbly written by Levring in collaboration with Anders Thomas Jensen (who previously worked on Fear Me Not and the Kiera Knightley vehicle The Duchess).

What is really impressive is how these Danish guys have written not only a script in English, but one which is idiomatically and authentically a period piece. This may not be exactly how people spoke in the old West, but it was certainly adequately convincing to fool me.

It tells the story of Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), an ex-soldier, who is brutally bereaved and left to avenge himself against the evil Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his colourful band of robbers, including the French football star Eric Cantona. Of no help to Jon are the local townspeople, including the slimy local mayor and undertaker (an excellent Jonathan Pryce) and the spineless hypcritical local parson and sheriff (Dougie Henshall, another fine British actor).

It's a great cast, but besides Mads Mikkelsen the other real knock out is Eva Green as Madeleine or 'Princess', apparently one of the bad guys — but it's not that simple. 

The Princess bears an Indian tattoo on her face, from the tribe who cut out her tongue. She is of course mute, and spends the whole movie silent. But if you think that limits the possibilities of her performance, you'd be wrong. Eva Green delivers an astonishing performance, using just her eyes to convey profoundly affecting emotions. She is brilliant, and her performance is a reminder of the lost power of silent cinema.

I should also mention a fine music score by Kasper Winding (who did the music for a recent British drama The Riot Club) and the breathtaking location photography in South Africa (which also serves so well in the pirate series Black Sails).

The Salvation is great movie, one of the best of the year, and an instant classic. The only false note in it is a character named Mallick, which struck me as an unnecessarily knowing reference to Terence Mallick, a film maker and a brilliant purveyor of quasi-Westerns such as Badlands, Days of Heaven and Pocket Money. On the other hand, there is another character called One Eyed Jack which is a great Western movie reference.

(Image credits: The main poster ('Bad Men Will Bleed') is from Vortex Effect. The other posters are from Imp Awards. The clean-cut close up of Mads is from Mongrel Media. The scar faced close up of Mads is from Indie Wire Play List. Eva Green pointing her Winchester at us is from the official movie trailer on You Tube. Mads pointing his Winchester at us is from Fandango Groovers movie blog. Eva sitting looking thoughtful is from Love Heaven 07. Maybe she's reflecting on how brilliant she was in this film.)

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