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Shadow of the Sword (The Headsman)

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Martin, the Headsman in, "Shadow of the Sword".

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Martin, the Headsman in, “Shadow of the Sword”.

“If you have to kill me, do it. Otherwise, they will kill you and all your family” ~Anabaptist
“Keep still, you won’t feel a thing. That’s all I can do for you. Please forgive me.”
“The Lord God will forgive you” ~Anabaptist

After plodding through many unsatisfying historical films, I approached this one with trepidation and dread. I’m not going to lie, I was lured by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a. Jamie Lannister to you GOT fans. I love Coster-Waldau as the villainous Jamie so I wanted to see what he offered on the big screen. I was prepared for the worst but came away very pleasantly surprised. This movie is actually good!

A young Martin and Georg in the monastery.

A young Martin and Georg in the monastery.

The Plot

The film is set in Tyrol Austria, 1520, in the backdrop of the Reformation. It begins by telling us that Martin Luther’s 95 theses are circulating and causing quite a flap. In the meantime, the Catholic Church is scrambling to get rid of this Protestant heresy. They hire “Headsmen” to execute heretics. These executioners were considered “untouchables” and had to live outside the town walls.

Enter two orphaned children living in a monastery, Georg, Irish actor Peter McDonald (Wreckers, When Brendan Met Trudy) and his best friend Martin, played by Coster-Waldau. The two boys witness an execution, and as the blood of the condemned splatters down on them, they swear an oath to be ‘brothers until we die, forever.’ Sadly, this doesn’t come to pass and they are separated by the Abbot Bertram, played by veteran actor, Patrick Godfrey (Remains of the Day, Les Misérables). Georg is selected by the Archbishop, played by John Shrapnel (Gladiator, The Duchess) to remain in the church and Martin is taken away to be raised as a soldier.

Eddie Marsan as the sleazy, evil Headsman's assistant, Fabio.

Eddie Marsan as the sleazy, evil Headsman’s assistant, Fabio.

Fast forward 15 years…

Martin is a respected Captain in the army and returns to his home to see Georg. While visiting, he takes notice of a lovely young woman who turns out to be the Headsman’s daughter, Anna, played by Anastasia Griffith (Damages, Dirty, Filthy Love) She is mistreated ad reviled by the townspeople and Martin comes to her aid. He becomes smitten with her in spite of the risk to his reputation and career. Unfortunately, her father has promised her to his greedy, grasping assistant, Fabio, played by Eddie Marsan (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, Snow White and the Huntsman). Martin leaves to go to war and Anna stays behind pregnant with his child. After the Headsman dies, Fabio sees his chance tries to force Anna to marry him. She wants nothing to do with Fabio so he attacks her and Martin intervenes in the nick of time. Martin, realizing the child is his and that he loves Anna, decides to stay and wishes to marry her in spite of the implications of such a union. Georg refuses to marry them because of the tarnish it would bring Martin so he sends them to be married by an ardent, but kind Anabaptist preacher. This, my friends, is where the real meat of the story begins…the rest of the movie, (which I won’t spoil), traces Martin’s life as the new Headsman during the tumult of the Lutheran Reformation. We get to see the wheels of the Inquisition turn in Tyrol and Martin’s relationship with Georg put to the test. It’s a story about friendship, religious zealotry and love all wrapped into one.

Steven Berkoff as the sadistic Inquisitor.

Steven Berkoff as the sadistic Inquisitor.

Some of the highlights for me were the actors, like Steven Berkoff. He’s absolutely fantastic in this film. From last week’s disappointing show in the Katherine of Alexandria movie, I was hoping he would fare better in this and he didn’t let me down. Berkoff has a knack for playing crazed religious fanatics. Some of you may remember him as the fiery Italian Renaissance preacher, Savonarola, in the television series, The Borgias. He stole every scene in that show and he does the same here.  He reprises his role as a zealot by playing the part of an Inquisitor, and he nails it. He scares me by just looking at the screen. No one is safe from him, not even Churchmen.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones, Mama) does a great job as Martin, our swashbuckling hero and repentant Headsman. He hates the job, unlike Fabio, who relishes in the spectacle that surrounds executions. Martin does it because he loves Anna and he has to take her father’s place in order for them to be together. He takes zero pleasure in his job. It’s nice seeing him in the role of a good guy after watching his Jamie Lannister swagger arrogantly across the screen on Game of Thrones.  In this movie, he plays more of a Ned Stark, noble, honourable guy, type of role.

Anastasia Griffith as Anna, the Headsman's daughter, and Martin's love interest.

Anastasia Griffith as Anna, the Headsman’s daughter, and Martin’s love interest.

The History

A little bit about the history behind the story…

 
Anabaptists

Anabapists feature heavily in this sad tale. Originating in Zürich, the adherents of this offshoot of Lutherism believed that baptism should be delayed until the individual could confess their faith. They rejected the baptism of infants and as a result, they were heavily persecuted in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Executioners

Executioners were indeed shunned at this time. They lived outside the city or town walls, and people avoided associating with them at all costs. They were considered “damned” in some cultures. Executions were to deter criminals, scare heretics, to validate divine authority, and to shock the public. The entire drawn out spectacle was meant to demonstrate temporal power and redemption. The executioner was a performer; all eyes were on him. The executioner had to be careful not to make any errors when he dispensed the state’s justice. It was an important, but thankless, job that carried with it some unfortunate social consequences.

This movie was a pleasant surprise. The plot centred on an occupation often shrouded in mystery but managed to give us a sympathetic character in Coster-Waldau’s executioner. It also gave the viewer a story about the impact of the Reformation outside of England with a decent love story that didn’t detract from the movie. All in all, time well wasted.

~Sandra Alvarez

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