YOU may not recognise Aussie Travis Fimmel in Vikings.
Last we heard much about the former underwear model was his casting as Tarzan in a series that met an early end and his co-starring role opposite Patrick Swayze in The Beast.
Get ready to be surprised.
Fimmel delivers an intense, slightly creepy, performance as legendary Viking Ragnar Lodbrok in this Canadian-Irish historical drama on SBS.
And get ready to also be surprised by just how watchable and fascinating Vikings is.
The History Channel series is meaty stuff, with lots of swordplay, battles, tension and backstabbing, all set in a dark, unfamiliar world.
Our hero Ragnar Lodbrok is a young warrior and Viking farmer, married to a shield maiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) who knows how to wield a sword to defend her family when the men are away raiding.
Ragnar serves the ageing earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) who doesn’t believe the rumours of great, unplundered lands to the west and won’t allow raids there.
With the help of craftsman Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard, the brother of True Blood’s Alexander), Ragnar secretly has a long boat built and takes a small crew, including his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) raiding west. He uses new technology that allows them to track via the sun. Still, tempers fray and warriors start to believe they’ll die in the middle of an endless ocean before they finally reach land – the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumbria.
For history buffs, this historic raid in 793 on Lindisfarne, also called the Holy Island, heralded the start of “the Viking Age”, a tumultuous period for England.
Ragnar and his followers find the monks of Lindisfarne timid and easy prey and return home with slaves and much wealth, including a young monk called Athelstan (George Blagden) who Ragnar takes as his slave. Though Athelstan’s eyes we see the stark differences in beliefs between Christians and Vikings; these gods the young monk is confronted with are frightening and the society he’s been thrust into is dangerous and strange.
As for Ragnar, his ambition and success doesn’t please Haraldson who seeks malicious, devious ways to rid himself of his younger, smarter rival. And it’s here that the series kicks up a notch, delivering conflict and drama as an intriguing story unfolds.
Ragnar later returns for further raids into Northumbria, angering its king, Aelle (Ivan Kaye). His warriors have never come across fighters like these men (and women) who show no fear and welcome death because it means going to Valhalla.
Vikings is a brutal, at times shocking, but all together fascinating and series now showing on SBS on Thursday nights. It’s violent and bloody but none of the violence or sex is gratuitous.
The series is also full of excellent, believable characters who stay in your mind for a long time; Floki, for example, is like a drug-crazed cult leader; Gabrielle Byrne portrays Haraldson as an ageing bully, desperate to hold onto power and his attractive wife. The female roles are also strong and vital.
Vikings may not be Game of Thrones (what is?) but it’s heaps of fun all the same and nicely filmed with sweeping views of Irish cliffs and rivers.
Produced by Michael Hirst who brought us The Tudors and Camelot, Vikings is intensely watchable and makes no apologies for its violence. Nor do the writers try to portray Ragnar as anything other than a warrior and a man of his time and culture. We are surprisingly on his side as he defies his lord to sail west, even though we know his purpose is anything but noble – he means to kill those he finds and steal their wealth.
Throw in prophecies, visions of gods that have a bloody purpose, heaps of action and good looking actors and actresses, and Vikings is one of the surprises of 2013.
The nine-episode first series of Vikings is on SBS on Thursday nights.
HOT GUY ALERT: Girls, Clive Standen as the muscular warrior Rollo is certainly easy on the eyes.