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The Northman

Directed by 'The Witch' and 'The Lighthouse' filmmaker Robert Eggers, this Alexander Skarsgård-starring Viking epic is bold, bloody, brutal and brilliant.
By Sarah Ward
May 16, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
May 16, 2022
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Satanic goats don't talk in The Northman. Heartthrobs don't masturbate while fondling mermaid figurines, either. Still, within ten minutes, pre-teen Viking prince Amleth (Oscar Novak, The Batman), his glory-seeking warrior father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke, Moon Knight) and jester-meets-shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley) descend into a fire-lit cave to take hallucinogens, growl, grunt, bark like wolves and fart like it's a god-given superpower. If viewers didn't know who's behind this bold, brutal, brilliant, and blood- and guts-strewn Scandinavian opus before then, there's no doubt from this trippy scene onwards: after The Witch and The Lighthouse, writer/director Robert Eggers' touch, approach and style have become that distinctive just three remarkable features into his helming career.

As he first demonstrated with his potent pilgrim horror movie, then doubled down on with his mesmerising oceanside nightmare, Eggers crafts chaotic celluloid dreams about faith- and sanity-stretching dances with madness and mania. He makes features so striking that they're haunting, rippling with the devotedly realistic and the hypnotically occult in tandem. Eggers' work isn't merely meticulously tense and atmospheric; it proves blisteringly visceral to the point of feeling inescapably tangible. Indeed, his steadfast commitment to authenticity spirits the whole concept of immersive filmmaking high into movie Valhalla. See: the vivid period-appropriate detail in The Northman's Nordic villages, which'd only be more evocative if they'd time-travelled in from the ninth and tenth centuries. Sense: the entrancing swirl that springs from all of the above, complete with Eggers' unfailing idiosyncrasies. Experience: the sublime tussle with myth, fantasy and folklore that results, as it has in each of his features, to both plunge into and interrogate his history-set reveries.

In this untamed and laid-bare portrait of the past, something is rotten in the state of Iceland — as it was in Denmark via William Shakespeare, and in the Pride Lands of Africa in both versions of The Lion King. Writing The Northman's screenplay with poet, novelist and Björk collaborator Sjón (Lamb), Eggers takes his cues not from Hamlet, however, but from the Old Norse legend of Amleth that inspired the iconic tragedy. The narrative still involves a son anointed to be the future king, a tragedy that shatters his regal family, and a dastardly uncle who gets murderous to seize the throne and his brother's wife, of course. And, it keeps following its protagonist as he wages a determined odyssey of feral revenge against the man who reshaped his fate so ruthlessly.

"I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir." That's Amleth's vow as a boy on a north Atlantic island in 895 when he witnesses the latter's (Claes Bang, Locked Down) treachery. He flees after hearing his uncle bay for his head, too, and seeing him carry off Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos) as a spoil of his victory. Two decades later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, Succession) is a hulking, wolfskin-clad Viking berserker, living life flinging whatever weaponry he can find while viciously pillaging through the lands of the Rus. But amid the bloodlust, gore and piling-up body count, the intense marauder is thrust back onto his vengeance-seeking path. A Slavic seeress (Björk, in her first film role since 2005) whispers stark truths about his current savagery and lapsed mission against Fjölnir, reigniting his yearning for that promised slaughter — and the single-minded behemoth learns that his uncle is now sheep-farming in Iceland, having lost the kingdom in another coup.

A line from Hamlet comes to mind: "now could I drink hot blood". By the time Amleth brands himself to pass as a prisoner of war, slips onto a slave ship and ensures he's among the new captives at Fjölnir's ranch, he's already literally done just that. But his thirst for honouring his father, rescuing his mother and slaying his uncle remains unquenched, and he soon has help from and the heart of fellow servant Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, who scored her big break with The Witch alongside Eggers). How that quest eventuates won't surprise anyone familiar with the Bard, but The Northman still astonishes again and again. As only visionary filmmakers can, Eggers refuses to take any expected turn or make a single predictable move even while playing with a plot that's long spilled its thrills across popular culture, and while slashing into a genre — Viking epics — that's rarely far from screens.

High among The Northman's joys and wonders, both large and small, sits its cast — with Skarsgård fulfilling a decade-plus journey from playing True Blood vampire Eric Northman to both starring in and producing this, which he's been trying to bring to fruition for just as long. His muscular power and presence as the epitome of rage and revenge is pulsating, not to mention physically commanding, and buying Amleth as the lacerating spirit of both a wolf and a bear is one of the easiest things about the film. His Big Little Lies co-star Kidman also turns in a ferocious performance, and the pair's evolution from that TV hit's husband-and-wife dynamic to this flick's unhinged mother-and-son duo drips with the requisite Oedipal creepiness. Elsewhere, Bang does brooding villainy like he's born to it, as he showed in Dracula; 22 years after playing Hamlet himself, Hawke delivers a 20-minute supporting-player masterclass; and the inimitable Taylor-Joy ensures that no one else could ever be pictured in her pivotal part. Plus, that Eggers finds small roles for The Witch's Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson doesn't go unnoticed.

A ravaging rampage of a film — a movie beating with unshakeable fury, as metal a Viking saga that's ever likely to be made, and equally thunderous and off-kilter — Eggers' best feature yet wouldn't be what it is without its weight and spectacle, though. It's a picture of brusque poetry in its dialogue, its curt lines laden with importance but never trite (Amleth's stated juggling act to find "kindness for my kin and hate for my enemies" included). It's a work of elemental potency in its sweepingly shot imagery, with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (a veteran of all three of the director's films) painting with light, the stunning landscapes, and the wind, rain, snow, mud, fire and ash that lurks upon it. That's true in the head-splitting game of Knattleikr that makes just one primal centrepiece, the climactic naked volcano sword fight and the many supernatural-laced sights in-between. And, it all contributes to a breathtaking cinematic onslaught that savvily turns hellishness into movie heaven — all without shying away from the costs and sacrifices of Amleth's crusade; serving up a simplistic revenge fantasy; or excusing, glorifying or downplaying the relentless violence that informs every moment.

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