The Salvation

If the narrative doesn't provide all the signposts, the visuals will, as The Salvation writes a love letter to the western genre.
The Salvation

Image: supplied

The year is 1871 and the country is America, the adopted home of Danish brothers trying to establish a living. Following their homeland’s defeat in the war of 1864, Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, TV’s Hannibal) immigrated to the New World with his sibling Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) by his side, but without his wife, Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius, White Night), or son, Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke, In A Better World). Their time apart finally ends with welcome arrivals on the dusty plains; however the family reunion is sadly fleeting. Tragedy begets revenge and then a spiral of more of the same, the whole town soon embroiled in a feud that can’t be quelled or walked away from. 

If the film’s narrative didn’t provide all the essential signposts, its visuals certainly will: The Salvation is a Western. In contemporary cinema, the genre has almost fallen by the wayside, but its fans rightfully remain. Writer/director Kristian Levring (Fear Me Not) is clearly as fond of wide-open vistas, golden hues contrasted against blue skies, muddy streets, rustic staging, and detailed period costumes as he is of plots of vengeance and violence, terse exchanges, obvious villains, complex heroes, and the conflict between greed and honour fought between outsiders and locals.

Indeed, even as Jon’s plight is complicated by the many others placed in his path – cruel gunslinger, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Magic City); mute widow, Madelaine (Eva Green, Penny Dreadful); the mayor who doubles as the undertaker (Jonathan Pryce, Listen Up Philip); and a priest turned sheriff (Douglas Henshall, The Eagle) among them – Levring dresses up the drama in sumptuous imagery at every turn. With his frequent director of photography Jens Schlosser (The Intended), the filmmaker basks in vibrant aesthetic detail, their rich vision worlds away from the sparseness of the Dogme 95 movement for which the helmer, cinematographer and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (Love Is All You Need) are best known.

Satisfyingly, the feature doesn’t just rely upon the standard Western shots seen in many a modern interpretation of the genre, as easy a technique as that often proves. Whether following the protagonist’s line of sight through the township, delving into an inky-black night-time fray, or riding off into the sunset, The Salvation is both faithful and inventive in its depictions of even the most stock-standard of situations. A rousing score by Kasper Winding (No Time for Love) achieves the same feat, laced with notes that hail back to the classical compositions of films gone by, yet also wrestling its own space and adding its own emotion to the showdowns and standoffs.

The cast, too, balances on the thin edge that separates too-easy stereotypes from affectionate homages, Mikkelsen and Green most successful at twisting recognisable roles into more than rote turns. Neither is given much to say, the former by stoic design that continues to suit the star of Valhalla Rising, and the latter by virtue of backstory that brings her expressive features and blazing glare to the fore. Neither needs dialogue to convey the moods and motivations of their characters, nor to channel the strength and fortitude necessary in a feature that writes a love letter to its genre. Supporting players may not fare as well, but add requisite colour and texture for the lead and the femme fatale to bounce off of, as well as roadblocks for them to swerve around or barge straight through in grand Western fashion.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

The Salvation
Director: Kristian Levring

Denmark | UK | South Africa | Sweden | Belgium, 2014, 92 mins

Australian Centre for the Moving Image

14 January – 1 February

Sarah Ward

Wednesday 21 January, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay