16 May 2014

Arn: The Knight Templar

Arn a Surprisingly Good Swedish Epic
By Kristin Battestella

Big shocker, I’ve never seen anything in Swedish before taking in this 2007 Scandinavian epic. Other languages with which I’m familiar, perhaps, but Arn isn’t a picture to which one can merely listen – especially if you have no Swedish reference points. Fortunately, the fine story, performances, and medieval action here transcend any cultural barriers and make for an entertaining good time.

After being excommunicated from his 12th century home in Sweden for his relationship with the would be nun Cecilia (Sofia Helin), the Folkung and Cistercian trained Arn Magnusson (Joakim Natterqvist) must pay his twenty year penance as a knight templar in the Holy Land. There, Arn meets Saladin (Milind Soman) and forms an unlikely bond with his religious enemy.  Will Arn survive the Crusades, return to his love, and help save his best friend King Knut (Gustaf Skarsgard) from the usurping Danes?

First, let’s clarify a few things shall we? Understandably, Arn has English subtitles for the spoken Swedish. However, there is also English spoken by foreigners standing in as representation for the Latin or French influences of the 12th century, and Arabic uses make for an unexpected but excellent touch. Initially released in 2007 and 2008 as two separate films adapted from the Knights Templar Crusades trilogy (The Road to Jerusalem, The Knight Templar, The Kingdom at the End of the Road) by Jan Guillou, Arn: The Knight Templar and Arn: The Kingdom at the Road’s End have been combined on video as a 6 part, 260 minute epic series, making Arn watchable stateside indeed. The historical looks also feel accurate thanks to traditional garb – not high Middle Ages splendor and knights in shining armor seen so often in onscreen ye olde times and places. This most expensive Scandinavian film collaboration isn’t low budget in style but quite even with Hollywood scope. Certainly, there are moments of small scale with tight interior filmmaking, dark photography, and quickly edited charges or swordfights. Fortunately, the mostly on location scenery looks the untouched part, and stone works details, wooden designs, lovely music, fine horsemanship, and all the natural greenery are appropriately charming. There’s no insert computer imagery later needed in Arn because desert oranges and rocky desolation perfectly capture the dusty exile in contrast to the far away Swedish isolation and cold snows.

I like Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, The Adventurer by Mika Waltari, and Knight of the Scimitar by Robert Bancroft; and Arn’s Scandinavian suave makes me want to read the source books – which predate the modern Knights Templar/Da Vinci/Ancient Aliens/American Holy Grail or other fringe theories so often seen on the quote History Channel nowadays. It’s surprising that crusades material seems a mainstream exception rather than full on popular like more fanciful medieval works, but the tale here is well developed with childhood trainings and swift age transitions in the First Episode. Yes, some viewers may find the kid stuff annoying, but it’s also pleasing to see an innocent child who doesn’t understand the politics of his time and the role of God and church in the eyes of his people. Despite this religious fulcrum, Arn is surprising not heavy handed on its Christianity – the church is portrayed as the educational institution and governing body as it was then without any added modern subtext. This was the law of the day, absolutely overseeing people’s lives and without question. Arn uses that influence for its pathos, and medieval or historical fans will appreciate this tug and pull stance. Adapting such epic, however, is not without its difficulty and Arn’s Second Hour sags as more love story elements develop. This near monk and soon to be nun in love understandably equals conflict, and though honest and heartfelt for the most part, this somewhat juvenile budding romance and brief nudity should have happened sooner with a transition montage just like the training years. Even us Yankees don’t need subtitles to figure out a scandalous puppy love or all these horny chicks so ready to mount a young monk’s bones!

It’s simplistic to say Arn is about a man fighting the crusades for the love of a woman, but this theme is certainly relatable across time and place. Arn is a flawed human being among such bloodshed for both the right and wrong reasons, and this mix of personal fiction amid the historical is well done. The enemy sects, kingship coups, and church politics set the dangerous scene as a killer best friend returns and jealous sisters hit the fan. Interesting questions are also raised in how justifiable killing is permissible under church law but love is a crime instead of God’s will. With this serial format, Episode 3 needlessly repeats some of the opening fight sequence but Cecilia’s convent plight is strong, almost like prison segments with abuse, solitary confinement, and deliberate bloodlettings. This back and forth action, however, is sometimes tough in pacing; leaving the crusade intrigue unbroken for opening or closing convent updates might have been better. Though lovely, Arn’s temporary truce campfire scenes with Saladin are also a touch toward repetitive – it’s too on the nose for everyone to ask Arn why he’s there and then follow up with a Cecilia moment or memory. Seeing the full on battle respect between Arn and Saladin in addition to the crusade conflicts and his not knowing Cecilia’s predicament is all multi layered and sweet enough storytelling. Some of the lovelorn compromises the larger picture, and Arn should have perhaps lengthened the army action or stayed in only his point of view. The uneven representation of the penance time between the two seems worse for her than it was for him when casual viewers may have expected war to be the more perilous road.

Fortunately, be it Swedish clan rivals or Holy Land battles, the action in Arn’s Fourth Part is well done. We don’t get to see the entirety of Saladin’s campaign, but Norwegian humor is added and a significantly emotional, tender horse moment won’t be for the faint of heart. Unschooled viewers may of course be confused over some names or who’s allied with whom, but the dates and associates are reiterated enough as their looks change and time progresses. The Saladin action is heavy with serious crusade scenery and fighting entertainment, but this Jerusalem intrigue is condensed in favor of a somewhat sappy reunion, Danish intentions, and the state of things at home politics by Episode 5. If viewed separately, the first Arn: The Knight Templar romance film must seem lightweight compared to the battlefront in The Kingdom at Road’s End. The tale practically restarts by jumping 6 years post hence to show next generation family ties and the future of Sweden, and this seemingly tacked on Sixth Hour finale feels slightly like the Beowulf and the dragon extraneous. Wasn’t Arn supposed to be about a forbidden love during the crusades? Characters disappear, new folks arrive – its stimulating court subterfuge and bittersweet moments, but the novelized tracking the life of one man through epic historical events appears uneven with the cinematic love story and refocused screenplay. The last 40 minutes of warfront at home is perhaps meant to be more foreboding then the crusades and the Swedish patriotism over the potential for religious drama is understandable, but the resolved forlorn love dampens the somewhat fast and easy yet padding climatic battle. Arn is two movies combined to adapt three books and the interwoven plot pacing should have been more taught and polished. Surprisingly then, the conclusion is nonetheless fitting, and again, the overall success and charm here makes us want to read up on our 12th century Scandinavian foils. In fact, it’s a pity there are no movie plans for The Heritage of Arn literary follow up or an original cinematic adaptation focusing on the Magnusson grandsons– which would make Arn’s budding Sweden last hurrah the springboard to another adventure.

Of course, Arn’s only big Hollywood name is Stellan Skarsgard (Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor) as Birger Brosa, Arn’s powerful and politically influential uncle, but the otherwise European, Swedish, and relatively unknown ensemble does wonderfully. Mother Sigrid (Mirja Turestedt, A Midsummer Night’s Party), his father Magnus (Michael Nyqvist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Vincent Perez (Queen of the Damned) as Brother Guilbert anchor the early hours while Steven Waddington (The Tudors) as crusader Torroja and Mother Rikissa (Bibi Andersson, Persona) add antagonism. Anders Baasmo Christiansen (An Immortal Man) as Arn’s tubby Nord friend Harold is little more than a humorous sidekick but the lighthearted companion alleviates the war tension. Milind Soman’s (Captain Vyom) Saladin is an interesting enemy with more in common with Arn than his superiors, but at times, Sofia Henlin (The Bridge) as Cecilia seems too pretty among other hardened medieval chicks or too old compared to Arn. Thankfully, her hair and costuming fit the period and the transformation from lovey dovey to strengthening of faith and womanhood progresses naturally even if the chemistry between leads could have been better. They have their avowed devotion so fast and such discipline for so long; Arn constantly tells us of their love or how stupid they’ve been for it but their time actual together feels brief somehow. The audience needs to believe this is so dynamite – defying the church for love! Once reunited, however, one wonders if their torment and the promise of this later, renewed life were worth it. As expected, Joakim Natterqvist (Kiss Me) as Arn is likeable as both a swordsman and the young innocent hero in contrast to his jerky best friend and future king Gustaf Skarsgard (Vikings). We relate to his indentured servitude, an unreasonable punishment brought down by the church due to the manipulation of others against his good nature. The edge he develops in killing for the very church that condemns him and the angst in using Saladin’s trust against him is well done. Again, Arn doesn’t give brow beating theology but smartly elevates the personal amid the epic with all around strong, even excellent performances. In spite of any language barriers, the story and characters shine thru the emotion and scale both intimate and historical. 

Varying video editions and different international versions of Arn per region code certainly create confusion if one wants to undertake a viewing, and those language hang ups will be insurmountable for some audiences. There is, however, a feeling of vindication in this seemingly little known collaborative production – not all medieval historical or fantasy tales jumped from the Lord of the Rings Bandwagon. Not all of them are billion dollar Hollywood flops or record setting excesses cashing in on fad timing or unnecessary sequels and multi part films coughthehobbitcough. Arn takes its time with its epic material without flash or gimmicks, and this two movies together as 6 episodes format available on Netflix captures the entirety of the tale. Game of Thrones is perhaps drawing itself out with expositions and sex positions – will the dragons ever get to Westeros and is winter really coming? – but with this new, stylized, cinematic long form television, I wonder what would have happened if Harry Potter had been a 10 episode series per book rather than a Reader’s Digest condensed few film hours. Why can’t the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions be shown on television as episodic hours? Starz is also using television’s adaptive strengths with serials stateside such as Pillars of the Earth, The White Queen, and the upcoming Outlander. Successes like Arn done on this scale give me renewed hope in someday seeing my proper, long awaited, and far overdue Arthurian spectacles and Beowulf justices.

It helps to know some Scandinavian history to watch Arn, and the uneven middle hours may come from the originally meant for big screen two movie design or crammed in trilogy adaptation. Some critical elements may also seem skipped over or lost in the transition from page to screen even if you are unfamiliar with the literary source. Fortunately, a marathon viewing goes by fast, and it’s nice to see the whole surprising and entertaining tale all at once. Medieval, historical, and period fanciful fans looking for something with less CGI and more heart can overcome any cultural viewing challenges and enjoy Arn’s religious dilemma, coming of age love story, and crusades battle action for its uniqueness, Swedish period style, and quality storytelling scope.

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