Firstly, that this is some serious art piece where filmmakers of real passion have hustled money from all over, inspiring support with their great idea.
… OR …
… it’s some big tax write-off.
‘Shadow of the Sword’ feels very much like the latter, a production botched together to take advantage of some neato European investment opportunities. It’s got some decent photography, a solid cast of reliable luvvies, and very effective historical locations, but none of these positive elements unify into a decent film.
There’s a lack of drive to the movie, no sense that this is a story that anyone involved had any enthusiasm for. There’s a pervading sense of going through the motions, that the film itself is a contractual obligation rather than a work in its own right.
The problem lies at both ends of the film’s storytelling, with a bland script and insipid direction. The dialogue is almost shockingly banal, with everyone speaking in cliches and mundanities. Simon Aeby’s direction lacks any verve, a problem rubbed in by editing that let’s pointless shots drag on to no end.
This should be intense material: set in 16th century Austria, it concerns the persecution of a growing Anabaptist movement by a corrupt Catholic church, seen through the eyes of two childhood friends, orphans from the local monastery forced down different paths: Georg (Peter McDonald, one of the gruff Leeds players from ‘The Damned United)), who returns as the monastery’s new prior, and Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the incestuous regicide from ‘Game of Thrones’), a soldier in the Emperor’s army.
The schism between the two just kind of happens, with no real sense of the fervour and seething tensions of the time.
Martin sees Anna, a local woman, being derided as a witch due to her knowledge of traditional medicine, and intervenes on her behalf. She treats his war wound, which rather abruptly leads to a sex scene which even more abruptly leads to their undying love. Overnight.
Oh, and Anna is the daughter of the headsman, the local executioner, and as such is considered untouchable by the Church. In spite of Anna being an untouchable accused of being a witch during a period of religious tension, Martin doesn’t seem to consider this a problem.
When Martin returns from a disastrous war he finds Anna has borne his son and her father dead, leaving a vacancy for the new headsman. He takes the job and marries Anna, even though it puts him outside polite society and the marriage – and their son Jacob’s baptism – needs to be conducted by those cheeky Anabaptist.
There’s a complete lack of tension through all of this, and an equal lack of surprise as crackdowns on heresy begin and embittered rivals conspire to put the tolerant Georg, as well as Martin, Anna et al, in the path of the Inquisition (as embodied by a characteristically ’subdued’ Steven Berkoff).
This is a bad film, hitting the unlovable sweet spot of being too competent to be enjoyably bad, yet too relentlessly unremarkable to induce even a flicker of interest. Dreary.