MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas’

Age of Uprising

Movie: Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
Directed by: Arnaud des Pallières
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz

There’s a scene in Age of Uprising where a character is hanged. Nothing too out of the ordinary for the medieval setting, but the distinctly idle way in which they go about it sums up everything that’s wrong with this picture. The character in question barely puts up a fight – sitting meekly on horseback and looking defeated until the animal moves forward, painfully slowly, to let him slip off the back and slowly choke to death. It’s bizarrely submissive, and completely devoid of any sense of occasion, which even in the endemic violence of the Middle Ages hangings should generally have. Age of Uprising takes the absence of drama in this scene and essentially stretches it out into a full-length, often tedious picture, which wastes its potential and cast and proffers something entirely well-worn and mediocre in its place.

A Franco-German production of a well-known German novella, Age of Uprising is the story of Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen), a well-to-do horse merchant in the 16th century. He is returning home after a purchase when he is stopped at the border and asked to pay a toll, handing over two of his horses to a local nobleman. Kohlhaas is less than impressed but cooperates, only to subsequently discover that the rule allowing the nobleman to impose such a toll has been abrogated. He seeks justice through the courts but is rejected, and after his servants and family are hurt in the crossfire decides to take matters into his own hands and becomes a lawless vigilante.

The book on which the film is based – Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist – is a 19th century parable about seeking justice in defiance of the lawless powers that be. Franz Kafka made one of his only two public appearances to read passages from the book and allegedly claimed that just thinking about it moved him to tears. You’d never know it from the film adaptation. This particular take on von Kleist’s novella is sumptuous in its production design but utterly flaccid in its execution. It’s far too long, even for a languid continental drama, and lacks the dramatic urgency necessary to engage its audience. In this regard, it’s actually rather surprising to see how underwhelming Mikkelsen is in the lead role. Mikkelsen is a charismatic actor who should by rights be able to bring gravitas and conviction to Kohlhaas’s quest for justice, but somehow fails to transcend the underwritten part and fundamental lack of pace. He feels entirely too distant for the hero of the piece, as even despite a slew of personal tragedies and lengthy first-act insight into his family and home set-up, there’s never quite enough to convince you to root for him.

Furthermore, the villain of the piece is too poorly sketched. People charging taxes and tolls where they ought not to is rarely the finest way to invite audiences into a story (moment of silence for the riveting taxation-of-trade-routes plot that marred Phantom Menace), but even at that, we get precious little insight into what’s at stake here. Kohlhaas’s quest for justice is meant to be symbolic of a struggle against arbitrary lawmaking and political convenience, but we don’t see enough of this to really engage with his journey. The era is recreated beautifully, replete with sweeping shots of a ragged windswept countryside and coldly efficient duels, but it’s all emotionless. Without some context, some wider setting for this supposedly heroic quest, there’s no grit or emotional heft and that leaves the film feeling sluggish.

With a little more attention to detail, Age of Uprising could have been something much better. In theory, all the ingredients for a piece of riveting period cinema are here; they just never find a way to add up to more. The picture would have benefited from some kind of musical lift – an arresting score would do much to remedy the underlying lack of emotional engagement, but without even that this is unlikely to leave much in the memory.

GRADE: D

Review written by Grace Duffy

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