Oh how the times have changed. Until the arrival of The Sopranos to the small screen back at the turn of the century, previously television productions had very little in the way of creditability. And now, fast-forward some 15 years and the format finds itself at the cutting edge of innovative ideas. Series from the likes of production houses HBO and AMC boast performances and scripts that test the boundaries of storytelling, dialogue and character, much as mainstream cinema did in its heyday, before it succumbed to big profits, meagre innovations and rebooting, reinventing and rehashing successful ideas of yore. In fact, as cinemas are increasingly clogged up with sequels, prequels and ‘quels existing in parallel universes with cameo appearances from earlier cast members and rehashed ideas, one begins to wonder whether mainstream cinema can ever find its way out of its self-imposed rut.
This week, while The Salvation often feels like a television movie of yore, with a limited budget resulting in a somewhat hesitant approach. However, therein still resides some superb cinematography, a winning protagonist and a moving score. At the core of the film stands Mads Mikkelsen, a former Danish soldier who has moved to the new frontier of the Wild West with his brother in order to start afresh. Integral to this plan of integration is reuniting with his wife and son from Denmark, and this is where we join him, waiting anxiously for their train to arrive, signalling the first time he and his family are to be together in seven years.
It comes as no surprise that Mikkelsen’s reunion with wife and child is to be short lived, and soon his path of revenge is crossing that of the local outlaw and land baron (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Shot in South Africa, but set somewhere on the lawless American frontier, director Kristian Levring (The King Is Alive) has abandoned all trace of his involvement with the Dogme 95 movement, creating a visually impressive genre piece. Whilst his isn’t the first Danish Western (with his Dogme alumnus Lars von Trier’s Dogville a more recent example), such a take does offer some refreshment for the well-trodden path of the genre.
Following his profile-raising appearance in television’s Hannibal, and lead in 2012’s The Hunt, Mikkelsen remains a magnetic screen presence. With a face strained by sorrow (yet refraining from weeping tears of blood as per his Bond villain from Casino Royale), he staggers about convincingly in a grief-struck stupor, dealing out his own brand of justice.
He receives adequate support from the rest of the cast, with a beardy and earnest Jonathan Pryce bringing thespian integrity to a small role. Elsewhere, Mikkelsen’s Royale castmate Eva Green makes an appearance as the mute widow of a man who meets his demise at Mikkelsen’s hand. With an uneven fake tan and little to work with bar announcing her distress through a handful of facial expression, hers is unfortunately a thankless role. Football fans who also get a kick out of “Looking for Eric” will find joy here, with Eric Cantona bobbing up, armed with a German accent and a scowl.
Things arrive at their predictable conclusion, yet the visual flair of cinematographer Jens Schlosser and the dependable Mikkelsen remain standouts. Unfortunately, differences between the South African locations and their American counterparts are smoothed over with often-distracting use of green screen special effects work. Furthermore, while costumes and certain sets prove authentic, the reliance on computer-generated fire proves distracting at various dramatic points during the film.
Perhaps most significantly, at just over 90 minutes, the film certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, with such a short running time, unfortunately the pace seems rushed, the story half told and, yet, no Western cliché is left unturned.