Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Vikings Are Coming!

I had trouble settling into the new miniseries The Vikings but the problem was entirely my fault.
Visions of a Monthy Python skit danced in my head and  later I wondered if this was going to be the Norse version of Spartacus.
It's the first scripted original drama series to run on the U.S. History channel and Canada's History.
And the credentials are impeccable. A joint Canada/Ireland co-production, it boasts the respected Canadian executive producer Sheila Hockin (QAF, The Tudors).
The much anticipated premiere is on History Sunday March 3 at 10 p.m.
Vikings was created and written by Michael Hirst (The Tudors) and he's joined as executive producer by Morgan O'Sullivan (The Tudors), and John Weber (The Borgias).
The Canadian director is Ken Girotti (Bomb Girls) who joins Johan Renck (The Walking Dead) who directs the first three hours.
Both History channels are hoping Vikings becomes the next Game Of Thrones with its strong emphasis on action --if it succeeds it will attract the same young males who crave GOT.
Vikings takes us back to 739 A.D.
Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) is a young Viking farmer and farmer who yearly joins hunting parties that ravage the eastern Baltic sea nations. But he has heard there are wealthier countries to the west, countries which local chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabe Byrne)  imagines to be dangerous, uncharted territory.
So Ragnar joins the local boat builder Floki (Gustav Skarsgard) to build a new ship capable of sailing on the northern Atlantic.
Mostly shot in Ireland and featuring wondrous CGI shots of great ship sailing the open seas, Vikings has a huge $40 million budget although the lack of star names may hurt a bit in North America.
Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick scores as Ragnar's wife who is described as a "shield maiden". Another Canadian, Jessalyn Gilsig, plays Earl's saucy wife.
Technically the eight-hour series soars with magnificent coastal scenery and a series of bloody, pitched battles every time the story threatens to lag.
Obviously History has restrained Hirst's usual penchant for nudity. At times Vikings plays like a family saga as Ragnar and his wife quarrel over the children and his long absences from home.
And as with all these sagas the accents frequently clash. But Hirst gets some drama about the plight of the Vikings as they first encountered the Christian inhabitants of Great Britain --one young monk Athelstan (played by George Blagden) is taken into slavery and gradually, insidiously tries to convert his heathen masters.
Hirst gets it right when dealing with the big issues like the awakening of the Vikings as they meet people of more advanced cultures.
To attract young males there are bloody battles particularly the one that opens the series --the battlefield is strewn with corpses as hundreds of ravens screech in the sky (a nice CGI touch).
But there's also humor --the young monk tries to explain celibacy to the lusty Vikings and grows morose when his shaved head begins sprouting hair.
Fimmel once bombed out as TV's Tarzan but a decade later has the presence to carry this story and makes a good team with Skarsgard (brother of Alexander from True Blood).
Vikings doesn't quite pack all the punch of Game Of Thrones but comes a very close second which is saying a lot.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

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