Billing itself “the first telling of the true legend of Hamlet,” 75-year-old Danish director Gabriel Axel’s “Prince of Jutland” is a lovingly made, ultra-small-scale yarn that successfully evokes the saga tradition at the cost of jettisoning most audiences in the process.
Well-meaning effort represents an almost impossible marketing challenge for any distrib bold enough to sign on. Despite a sturdy English-speaking cast, and a director whose rep with the 1987 “Babette’s Feast” still carries arthouse echoes, pic is a deliberate deconstruction of the Shakespeare play, shorn of familiar elements. As a subtitled item in Danish, it might have scraped by as an exotic art movie in Anglo markets.
The movie’s style is very different from that of the warmer, emotionally involving “Babette,” more often recalling Axel’s only other international success, the 1967 Icelandic saga “The Red Mantle.” Dispassionate, event-laden content perfectly mirrors the chronicle tradition on which it draws, but beyond extra-special situations and study classes, this looks like a pic without a public.
Set in sixth-century Jutland, “an ancient Danish kingdom,” story opens with the king and his son murdered by evil Prince Fenge (Gabriel Byrne), who assumes the throne and the bed of the queen, Geruth (Helen Mirren). Fenge’s nephew, Amled (Christian Bale), witness to the killing, pretends he’s barking to escape death, but secretly plans an elaborate revenge.
Suspecting Amled is not half as nuts as he seems, Fenge arranges for a beautiful blonde to pry the truth out of him. When that fails, and his co-conspirator Ribold (Steven Waddington) ends up as pig food, Fenge sends Amled to a Scottish friend, Aethelwine (Brian Cox), with orders to kill him on arrival.
Amled doctors the orders, wins Aethelwine’s confidence by beating a rival duke in battle, marries his daughter (Kate Beckinsale) and secretly returns to Jutland to slay Fenge.
Looking uncannily like a younger Peter O’Toole in robes, Byrne dominates the early going with his glowering presence and flavorsome Irish enunciation. Bale, recalling the long-tressed Tom Cruise in “Legend,” is slow to emerge but fits the profile of the young prince thrust by events into greatness.
Mirren, in a relatively reactive part as the queen, is solid, with Cox excellent as the confident, fulsome Aethelwine. Beckinsale is colorless as Bale’s love interest.
As in “The Red Mantle,” Axel’s portrait of the Dark Ages is unstinting on detail, but its spare look will come as a shock to audiences schooled in lusher, larger-scale Yank versions of the era. Only concession to mainstream entertainment values is Per Norgaard’s bright score in the pic’s first half. Scenes of violence, though brief, have an offhand brutality that’s jolting in the circumstances.