Gritty, bloody, visceral and front-loaded with a need for vengeance, the latest work from writer/director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) is so immersive and authentic, you’ll feel the muck between your toes and every blow across your body. Based loosely on a story that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet and co-written with Icelandic scribe Sjón, The Northman follows the life of Viking prince Amleth (re-arrange the letters; you’ll get it), who begins the film as a boy (circa 895 AD), waiting with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), for his triumphant father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), to return from war. Soon after he comes back, he takes young Amleth to a sacred place where the boy goes through a ceremony to become a man, under the watchful eye of the court fool, Weimir (Willem Dafoe).
Shortly after they emerge from this primal event, the king is attacked and murdered by his own brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), sending Amleth running into the woods swearing revenge and leaving his mother to an unknown fate (unless you know Hamlet). When Amleth grows up (and is played by a fully ripped Alexander Skarsgård), he hasn’t lost his fire to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle. Now part of a Viking horde, he raids and pillages villages, killing with such severity any who challenge him that we can easily see how brutally his uncle will eventually die. In fact, after one such raid, Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk, playing this fortuneteller exactly how you need her to do so), who has a vision of this young man killing his uncle, leading Amleth to leave the horde, sneak on a boat and head back home to honor his oath.
On board, he meets Olag (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave woman claiming to be a sorceress; Amleth enlists her to help his crusade. By chance, the boat is headed to his homeland, where he is stunned to discover that his mother apparently is the willing queen of his uncle, and they have a young son, Gunnar. As a result, Amleth formulates a plan to slowly pick off some of his uncle’s most trusted men, while he and his fellow Vikings work as faceless slave laborers that no one would suspect of rising against their betters. Eventually Amleth reveals himself, and much hell breaks loose.
The Northman is filmmaking as full-contact sports, filled with not just action, but also with the sights, smells and sounds of the period, the camera lens caked in grime, blood and rage. In all his sinewy swagger, Skarsgård is built of raw, unchecked emotion, which threatens to make him act impulsively rather than plot out his revenge with care and intelligence. The real surprise here is Kidman, who goes from loving, adoring mother and wife to something much different in the second half of the movie. The sequence in which she is reunited with Amleth is perhaps the best in the entire film, due in large part to Kidman’s performance.
The film’s final battle between Amleth and Fjölnir, literally set at the Gates of Hel (an active volcano) is as ferocious a swordfight as you will ever see on the big screen. As with all of Eggers films, The Northman isn’t afraid to be painstakingly authentic to the period while also bringing in the supernatural, with its parade of fortune tellers, sorceresses, and constant discussions of Norse gods and Valhalla. There’s a final vision in the movie that is breathtaking in its beauty and its glimpse of hope in a film that doesn’t offer much of either in the traditional sense.
There were moments during The Northman where I wanted to stand up and cheer, just as a way of celebrating the scale and execution of the filmmaker’s vision (luckily, Eggers was given a sizable budget to turn his vision into reality). Perhaps more than his other two features, I got more of a sense of the psychological damage that Amleth carried with him since childhood, and that pushes a great deal of the film forward in endlessly fascinating and propulsive ways. Better still, Eggers didn’t have to abandon the cinematic qualities that make his works wonderfully bizarre in places. Still rough around the edges, a cold serrated blade at its core, and remarkably photographed by Jarin Blaschke, The Northman is perfectly merciless filmmaking, as it should be.
The film opens theatrically on Thursday, April 21.
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