Based on Swedish author Jan Guillou's trilogy of books, Arn: The Knight Templar tells a story of diligence, composure, and love in the face of tumultuous circumstances -- a pretty familiar topic for historical epics, fictionalized or not. The film takes place in the mid-12th century during the time of the Crusades, where Arn (Joakim Nätterqvist), a young monk raised in a convent since childhood, learns the ways of battle from a fellow practitioner who used to be a Knight Templar. He eventually returns to his land and family as a composed, skillful man trained in the ways of battle and piousness, while his homeland's caught in the middle of a blunt-headed clan dispute. Though the wars (The Crusades) he unwillingly fights in obviously have nothing directly to do with the clan struggles, the story of a helpless boy primed in the ways of dignity and combat for warfare sounds like something we've heard before -- just in another place, amid another conflict. And yes, to top it off, he meets a woman when he returns home, someone who will become his inspiration.
Arn: The Knight Templar's formula shares more than a few similarities to other period action-dramas, namely Braveheart in its structure around a maturing man and Kingdom of Heaven in thematic essence. Yet, is there anything necessarily wrong with borrowing from other productions to tell its own passionate story, one filled with like-minded blade-clanking and patriotic chest-thumping? In this case, no; Peter Flinth's picture, a joint venture produced by Sweden and four other countries for roughly $30 million, molds this arrangement into its own distinctive, handsome piece of historical fiction. With polished sincerity, it takes the grandness of scope that typically propels entries in the genre and marches through the formula, concerning itself less with battle set pieces and more with the period's misguided grasp on virtue.
The big difference comes in Arn's inspiration, his honest and simple love for a woman named Cecilia (Sofia Helin), and the fact that she's alive instead of having her death vengefully drive him through the Crusades. Arn: The Knight Templar instead tells a conflicted romantic tale about their unwanted separation, decreed over a controversy among his people; Cecilia, with child and out of wedlock, is sent to live a life of holy servitude in a nunnery, under harsh scolding and whip-lashing disguised as a pathway to God's righteousness. Arn, serving his side of the punishment, sets off to fight in the Crusades with the skills he's been armed with from his early years with the former Knight Templar. Their reliance on one another as motivation, just to see each again through their circumstances, is skillfully used in the film as a subdued driver, mixing with their religion-bound conflicts in a way that veers from romantic sappiness into an authentic projection of longing and perseverance.
During Arn's time in the Crusades, Arn: The Knight Templar exercises the bulk of the film's production budget with gritty, reality-bound war sequences that rely more on practicality and earthy tension than chaotic lavishness. You're not going to see a lot of heads and arms lopped off or blood spraying, aside from one grin-inducing brutal maneuver from Arn -- and even that takes place before the actual war. The Moroccan-shot battles instead swirl with dust and clanking metal in a way that feels authentic and less aimed at sating action hounds, tapping into the harshness and survival within the conditions. And, moreover, they're few and far between, used strategically for storytelling and only hitting a handful of wide-scope battles. Whether the lack of visceral engagement takes away from the brutality of war will largely be in the eyes of the viewer, but the restraint on action sequences actually serves the film's more dramatic temperament rather well -- especially considering the conversations between Arn and his opponent, Saladin, about the fabric of honor and warfare.
Arn: The Knight Templar instead concerns itself with the demanding events that unfold in Arn and Cecilia's lives and the way that religion's convictions force them into dire circumstances, though the film opts to say more about belief than about the era's archaic perception of religion. In that respect, it's hard not to think about František Vláčil's The Valley of the Bees, a more thought-provoking existential piece that deals with a knight struggling with his unsolicited ascription to holy service. Arn, unlike the character in that film, finds peace within his early years of training and his belief in God, whereas Cecilia's oppression at the nunnery -- complete with nasty quips from the head nun about Arn never returning -- exemplifies the misconstrued institution that the Crusades are fighting for. The depiction might not be dynamic, mostly just communicating the period's harsh and volatile view on maintaining religion, but it's still an evocative magnet for both characters as they bide their time until a reunion.
Though heartfelt and resonant by way of two nuanced performances from Joakim Nätterqvist and Sofia Helin as Arn and Cecilia, not to mention photographed splendidly by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo cinematographer Eric Kress, Arn: The Knight Templar can't avoid sluggishly moving through its final acts due to heavy pacing. It strikes a balance between boisterous conflict and focused character turmoil that feels every bit as long as its 133-minute runtime while nearing an affecting-but-foreseeable close, whereas other epics of its type generate a heightened level of momentum nearing the climax. But as Arn's horse gallops in front of his compatriots before be delivers an inspiring speech, all but wielding a Claymore and sporting blue facepaint, the picture still feels justified amid its overlong familiarity. His story focuses on presevering in the face of war while maintaining goodness and fortitude, a more subtly moving point but nonetheless one worth experience in this medieval setting.
Video and Audio:
As previously mentioned, Arn: The Knight Templar was shot by ace photographer Eric Kress, so it's expected that E1's 2.35:1 widescreen-enhanced presentation should look rather smashing -- and it does. Several different color palettes populate the film, from cold blues and grays around the Swedish-shot scenes to the baked orange tint during the Crusades, yet there's always a semblance of control over the shades on this disc. Arn's chainmail armor changes colors with the atmosphere, but it always retains a decidedly metallic sheen. The haziness of foggy countrysides look appropriately creamy and dark, while fine detail in the golden cross and in the nunnery can be rather impressive. Some of the sequences do look a bit harsh and flat, while noticeably edge enhancement can be seen against the contours of dark objects against light skies. But the transfer mostly looks rather beautiful and lushly dimensional, a satisfying effort from E1.
Audio arrives in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, listed as an "English" language option on the menus. Don't let that throw you; the track is, in fact, a combination of several different languages that include English, Swedish, Arabic, French, and others, and isn't a English dub. E1 should've probably listed the track as Swedish/English 5.1, since both languages are used to at least the same degree. At any rate, there's nothing to worry about regarding the original language, as well as nothing really to worry about regarding the quality, either. Dialogue streams through with well-pitched clarity, while the clanging of swords and bopping of wood embody a highly-natural property that's aware of the sound space. The scoring swells and collapses into the sound design with elegance, while also traversing to the rear channels on a handful of very potent occasions. Aside from one or two flatly-delivered lines of dialogue and a few sound effects that get suppressed when they ought not to, it's a rather satisfying aural presentation. Only optional English SDH subtitles are available to accompany the 5.1 or 2.0 Swedish/English tracks.
Though low on numbers in the supplemental department, E1 Entertainment have included two Behind the Scenes featurettes (21:29, 21:23; 16x9) that delve fairly deep into the film's construction and the weight of its $30 million budget. The first "half" of the material is mostly driven by an interview with Joakim Nätterqvist, featuring snippets of behind-the-scenes shots and other material that's consequential to what he's talking about at the time. He discusses the budget, the books (and his lack of reading experience), Jan Guillou's participation, and the assortment of actors from different corners of the world. The second half takes on a similar rhythm, but fueled by interviews with Stellan Skarsgard and Sofia Helen. Deleted scenes, footage of Peter Flinth commanding the set, and other off-the-cuff shots populate this second piece, including a fair amount of focus on the excised portions of the movie. Coming together into a 40+ minute feature when watched back-to-back, it's a good mix of insight, snippets from the film, and filler.
Also, a Trailer (2:19, 16x9) fills out the rest of the material.
Peter Flinth's Arn: The Knight Templar isn't an innovative picture, but it does use the historical epic formula set in motion by the likes of Braveheart to tell a sweeping, handsome, often emotional tale set during the time of the Crusades. It counterbalances that nagging sensation of familiarity with the resonant romance between Arn and Cecilia, as well as a heavy-handed yet effective portrait of religion's domineering presence during the time -- and the honest, innocent faith that grows underneath. Though it lacks the oomph that other grand-scale epics deliver in persistent action and loses its steam when approaching a fairly foreseeable conclusion, it's still a headstrong story worth checking out for the way it projects the resilience of virtue and faith when they're shackled down. E1 Entertainment's disc looks and sounds rather good, while accompanied by two fine behind-the-scenes bits. Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site