Given the step up in scale – and, crucially, budget – that Viking epic The Northman represents for director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), you’d be forgiven for thinking that his uniquely twisted sensibilities might have been watered down for his first studio picture.
Thankfully, there’s a howling, hallucinatory initiation ceremony in a dank shack within the first 10 minutes that quells any fear that this is Diet Eggers. It’s one of many moments throughout to make you marvel at the idiosyncratic oddness Eggers has managed to smuggle in.
Adapted from the Icelandic tale of Prince Amleth – which also inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Northman blends that story with Norse myths to create a 10th-century original. The aforementioned ritual is a bonding experience between the recently returned King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and his young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak). Before you can say spoiler warning, the king’s half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, BBC’s Dracula) has ambushed and killed Aurvandil, claimed Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for himself, and assumed the throne of the island kingdom of Hrafnsey.
Witnessing this revolt, Amleth flees by boat, chanting his newly minted mantra: “I will avenge you father; I will save you mother; I will kill you Fjölnir.” When we pick up with him some years later, he’s grown into the hulking form of Alexander Skarsgård, and has been carving out an existence as a berserker in the Land of the Rus, raiding villages like it’s sport.
Skarsgård delivers what might be the performance of his career so far; in beast mode in every sense, his commanding, animalistic presence and unwavering commitment to vengeance drive the story forward. An act-one raid is a set-piece standout, as Amleth and crew lay siege to a wooden village. A sequence of mud, blood and extended takes, it’s an exhilarating piece of action. The brutality on display – and the mercilessness shown towards the village’s weaker inhabitants – is yet another way in which it doesn’t feel like Eggers is making concessions for a more mainstream entertainment.
Following this raid, Amleth redirects his energies to his revenge quest, heading to Iceland and the farm Fjölnir has settled in. Posing as a slave, Amleth’s all-consuming mission becomes one of infiltration, as he methodically works towards righting the wrongs against his father.
Adding to the feeling of this being an Eggers picture is the return of some of his repertory players, most significantly The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy as an enslaved woman, Olga of the Birch Forest. Taylor-Joy’s combination of ethereal grace and resourceful hardiness are well utilized, and once again, she proves a natural fit for any timeline.
Other Eggers players include Willem Dafoe as the court jester, and cameos from Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. You can’t help wanting more of some of them, particularly Björk’s mesmerizing but brief turn as a witch, but such is the forward momentum of the film.
The step-up in scale necessitates name actors, and here Hawke and Kidman provide the A-list gravitas as Amleth’s parents. Despite minimal screentime, Hawke makes a lasting impression and Kidman – in what initially threatens to be a thankless role – gets a surprising amount to do as things escalate. Both have wayward accents but, if anything, this adds to the otherworldly tone already cranked up to 11 by a thunderous soundtrack and primordial visuals.
A volcano looms large in the background, fitting for a story that feels coughed up from the center of the Earth. Nighttime scenes have a monochrome starkness, and bloody tableaus are arranged with an artist’s hand. Though we’re never given a huge amount of context, the parts of this world we traverse feel rife with detail, from the farmhand hierarchy, to the woven fabrics, to the ships on display. An ultraviolent game of proto-lacrosse thrills. A
And throughout, Viking mythos is baked into the film’s DNA: prophecies, arterial family trees, and a magically infused sword are as real as the lush landscapes; Valhöll feels within reach like a neighboring country.
For an outwardly straightforward revenge tale, The Northman doesn’t shy away from ambiguity, as it considers the cost of Amleth’s grudge, and the nature of this hero’s journey. If that makes it sound like difficult viewing, fear not; perhaps the most impressive aspect of all is how relentlessly entertaining it is. Despite clocking in at 137 mins, there’s no slack here, and not a wasted scene. It’s exactly what you want from a big-scale Robert Eggers Viking film. And it’s a cinematic rarity to be savored.
The Northman is in UK cinemas April 15 and US theaters from April 22. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way.
5 out of 5
The Northman review: “A truly distinctive, unmissable epic”
A truly distinctive epic, blending brutal violence, powerhouse performances and
otherworldly imagery into its volcanic rampage of revenge. Unmissable.