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Saxo Grammaticus Onscreen!
on July 30, 2005
If that name doesn't mean anything to you...don't feel bad. Most are far more familiar with Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' than with his source material, notably the 'Gesta Danorum' (Book of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus. 'Royal Deceit' (released in Europe as 'Prince of Jutland') is based on the Gesta, in particular the tale of Amleth, a prince who discovers his uncle murdered his father for his crown and feigns madness to take revenge. Sound familiar? This version is far less complicated and more straightforward than Shakespeare's, but that doesn't make it inferior; rather, it's a refreshingly simple look at the Norse legend behind the famous play.
That said, this film is definitely not for those who insist on sophisticated SFX, fast-paced action, and huge-scale battles. Combat is spare and usually represented by a couple of warriors on either side whacking each other with primitive swords, but realistically this is more in keeping with the sixth century than most of the epic-style stuff found in big-budget pictures. The costumes are extremely simple shifts and tunics, mostly, and are quite accurate for the period if not the most attractive things to look at. (Ethel's gown is a little form-fitting for the period, but then...it's Kate Beckinsale.) It was filmed on location in Denmark, and the scenery is really lovely.
The film is also remarkable for the quality of the performances, which are first-rate all around. Astonishing talents Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, and a young Christian Bale have most of the screen time, but look for truly enjoyable bit parts from the likes of Brian Cox, Kate Beckinsale, Tom Wilkinson, and - my favourite - Andy Serkis, better known as the man behind "The Lord of the Rings'" Gollum.
The action can be slow-paced for those accustomed to quick, cut-and-run pictures, but the story unfolds nicely. The narration in particular keeps well in the spirit of the Gesta, and there are some truly enjoyable scenes, particularly the scenes between Amleth and his mum Geruth and any time Brian Cox's King Aethelwine of Britain is onscreen. (Nobody chews scenery better than Brian Cox.) One warning, though, is in order: since this was primarily a Danish-funded film, it has rather a lot of nudity in it by American standards, including some full-frontal shots. I didn't find any of it offensive or out of place, but some may.
Perhaps I am biased as a Mediaeval Studies major, but I found 'Royal Deceit' enjoyable, for its own merit and as a nice alternative to all the Conan-style 'Mediaeval' pictures to be found elsewhere.