Most people in the English speaking world are familiar with William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. What they may not know is that the tale of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare. It appears in the fourth book of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, a history of Denmark published in the 13th century. Saxo's tale is in many ways similar to that of Hamlet, but differs in many ways as well. In Saxo's version the father of Amleth (Hamlet is the Anglicised version), King Horvendill, is murdered by his brother Feng. And just as in Shakespeare's version, Amleth feigns madness. But in Saxo's version, Amleth never contrives to reveal Feng's guilt through staging a play. Instead, he bides his time, all the while discreetly disposing of Feng's followers. In the meantime, Feng is suspicious of Amleth and puts him through various tests in order to prove he is not mad. Needles to say, Amleth passes all of these tests, thus insuring his charade of insanity is maintained. Of course, it is unlikely that Saxo's version of the tale is the original and the story of Amleth probably predates the Gesta Danorum. The tale may have been part of the lost Skjoldunga Saga (an earlier history of the Danish kings or "Skoldungs") and probably formed a part of the Danish oral tradition.
Over the years, Shakespeare's version of the tale has been filmed many times. Insofar as I know, Saxo's older version of the Amleth legend has only been filmed once. Esteemed director Gabriel Axel had long wanted to adapt Saxo's story of Amleth for the big screen. In 1994 his dream saw fruition as the movie Amled, prinsen of Jylland, known throughout much of Europe as Prince of Jutland and in America as Royal Deceit. Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a very loyal adaptation of Saxo's version of the tale, as Amled (played by a young Christian Bale) feigns madness in order to avenge his father's death at the hands of Fenge (Gabriel Byrne).
The movie's strong point is simply the performances of its cast. Christian Bale is believable as Amled, convincing even when he is feigning madness. And Gabriel Byrne is suitably duplicitous as Fenge, making him an all too realistic villain. As might expected, Helen Mirren gives her usual good performance in the role of Geruth, Amled's mother. For those who enjoy seeing now famous actors in their early roles, there is Kate Beckinsale in one of her earliest film roles and Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies) in his very first film role.
The screenplay by Gabriel Axel and Erik Kjersgaard (who was also the historical advisor on the film) is also quite good. Rather than rush the plot, Axel and Kjersgaard give the movie a very deliberate pace, allowing things to unfold in time. They also give the characters some very fine dialogue fitting a story of murder and vengeance. And the locations, all of them in Denmark, are beautiful.
This is not to say that Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a perfect film. It does have its flaws, nearly all of them due to the fact that it was shot on a very low budget. Even in the Dark Ages, the nobility would have dressed a bit more elaborately than Amled and his family do. Indeed, it seems as if there was only one Thor's hammer pendant shared among the cast members! The battle scenes feature armies of no more than 40 to 50 men at most. While the Battle of Hastings took place several hundred years later than Amleth lived (if he ever really existed), it is notable that the English fielded an army estimated at seven to eight thousand and the Normans had an army of approximately the same size. It is in these ways that the low budget ultimately undermines some of the film's realism. At the same time the low budget also undermines the film's story. We are never shown the murder of Amled's father and brother--we are merely told that they are killed in the narration.
Beyond the constraints that the budget created, in many ways Amled, prinsen of Jylland feels like a movie that was never quite completed. The editing is sometimes only adequate and at yet other times downright poor. And much of the plot is told in the narration (the perfect example being the fact that the murder of Amled's father and brother are never portrayed in the film--we are simply told that they were murdered by the narrator).
Despite these flaws, Amled, prinsen af Jylland is certainly worth viewing, although it is certainly not suited to all tastes. Those accustomed to slick, Hollywood productions with a fast pace might well be put off by the movie. That having been said, for those who do not mind movies with lower budgets and that are not quite as lavish as those put out by the major studios might well appreciate this film. I would particularly recommend it to anyone interested in Germanic mythology, Danish history, or the Dark Ages. It has some very good performances and a compelling story that is very different from that we know from Shakespeare's play.