I recently read an interview on Winter is Coming with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (NCW) and found out he made a movie some years ago called Shadow of the Sword. (Nikolaj plays Jaime Lannister in HBO’s series Game of Thrones.) The reason I was so taken by the mention of this film is that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (from now on I’ll refer to him as NCW) is wearing medieval garb, carrying a sword, and riding a horse. There’s nothing that I enjoy more than a handsome man in a period film with a sword.
I was also curious to see NCW in something other than Game of Thrones. I will admit that I saw both Kingdom of Heaven and Black Hawk Down, but since I didn’t know who NCW was at the time, I really don’t remember him. (Make a note to re-watch both films soon). So this weekend I settled down to watch Shadow of the Sword (The Headsman) (2005).
The film is set in what seems to be Northern Europe during the 16th Century’s Inquisition seen through the story of the friendship between two orphans, Martin (NCW) and Georg (Peter McDonald). The film is also about the horrors of religious fanaticism.
Peter McDonald and NCW
Martin and Georg meet as orphans in the local monastery and one day when they are considered old enough are taken away to separate locations by the Archbishop (John Shrapnel). We meet them again as adult men when Martin is now a soldier and Georg a priest. Georg is the Prior of the monastery and town and Martin an officer in the military. While camped outside the town Martin comes to visit his friend and falls in love at-first-sight with Anna (Anastasia Griffith), daughter of the town’s executioner. The executioner is employed by church and town, but considered and outcast along with his family. One thing leads to another and Martin has no choice but to become the town executioner to stay with his lady love. As for Prior Georg, let’s just say…
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” But they come to town anyway.
Martin and Georg find themselves on opposite sides of the religious persecution issue, their friendship is tested and their lives are in danger.
The film is successful in setting the right look and atmosphere for the times and the story. The contrast between the dirty streets and equally dirty people, and the tidiness and sumptuousness of the church and the priests is very well done. Some of the scenes are shot in beautiful locations that also contrast with the darkness of the tale.
The success of the look is deceptive because however ambitious the story, it just isn’t there in the script. The friendship between Martin and Georg as children is never really told, so later when they meet as adults it’s hard to know what keeps these two very different men involved and concerned for each other. There’s a start of an interesting character arc with Anna as a woman ahead of her time, but that story is dropped into nothing shortly after. Martin is clearly the hero, but we know so little about his character that the revelations that come later in the film fall flat.
What happened with the villains in this film? Seemed at times that this group of good British character actors were at the edge of playing their roles for laughs. Steven Berkoff channels his inner Dracula as the Inquisitor. John Shrapnel seems to be twisting an imaginary mustache as the Snidely Whiplash of Archbishops. And Lee Ingleby and Eddie Marsan are the most repulsive of repulsive villains. (Lee Ingleby has perfected the art of being “weasely.”)
I liked the performances of the lead actors. Though he’s not helped by the script, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does his best and gives a heartbreaking performance as Martin. He also looks good despite the stringy hair. There’s a charm about NCW that shows through in the quiet and romantic scenes. Anastasia Griffith plays a low key Anna and is believable in her romantic scenes with NCW. Peter McDonald as Georg gives the best performance in the film and his character of the one time good priest fighting his own interior and exterior demons is the most developed.
I think my expectations were too high for this film and this led to my disappointment with it. The cast is impressive and the story of the Inquisition and the darkness of the soul promised great drama. But the film is far from a great historical drama. It’s more an action/adventure/horror film that seeks to entertain rather than enlighten.
I enjoyed watching Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and learning a bit more about his career, and that was really my objective in watching this film.
There a few extras on the DVD. There’s a “Making of Shadow of the Sword” that’s really a bad home video of the filming of one scene with bad background music. But I really enjoyed watching the mini-interviews with the cast.
Warning – the film has some very graphic violent scenes.
The film was nominated for the Grand Prix des Amériques at the 2005 Montréal World Film Festival, Director Simon Aeby
Director Simon Aeby
Photos from www.lunafilm.at and Google Images.