“The Northman” might be Robert Eggers’ most accessible film and yet it never compromises itself as a Robert Eggers film, complete with old-world authenticity and forbidding weirdness. In “The Witch,” it felt like Eggers time-traveled back to 1630 New England for a masterfully moody witchy folktale. He then followed up that remarkable feature debut with the black-and-white nightmare “The Lighthouse,” where Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s lighthouse keepers descended into madness. Now, it’s Viking times with “The Northman,” an epic-scaled meal of myth and rage-fueled savagery.
Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist Sjón (“Lamb”), this revenge odyssey is based on the Scandinavian legend said to have inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Instead of Prince Hamlet, we have Prince Amleth, played by Oscar Novak. He’s the son of War-Raven King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), whose homecoming to his boy and queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), doesn’t last too long. First, the king and his court jester (Willem Dafoe, making the delirious most of his little screentime) initiate Amleth into a psychedelic ritual that calls for them to get in touch with their inner animal. Not long after, Amleth witnesses the brutal assassination of his father at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Growing up into Swedish adonis Alexander Skarsgård, Amleth joins a band of howling, raging berserkers who slaughter entire villages. Passing himself off as a slave, he insinuates himself back into his former kingdom where Fjölnir has now married Queen Gudrún, vowing to avenge his father’s murder, rescue his mother, and kill his uncle. Violence, of course, begets violence.
Lest one think an austere Norse legend won’t be for them, “The Northman” is too vivid to ever be dull, and Eggers proves he’s not humorless or above a fart joke. As one of our most accomplished and meticulous period filmmakers working today, Eggers does his due diligence everytime. With a bigger budget here, Eggers never lets the blackened heart of his story get lost amid bloat or spectacle. Broken up into portentous chapter titles, the arduous 140-minute run time is occasionally felt, but Robert Eggers makes it his mission to make Amleth’s long, vengeance-seeking path feel methodically ruthless and earned, and that he does.
Eggers and cinematographer Jadin Blaschke (who brought chiaroscuro and German Expressionist touches to Eggers’ previous films) really make us feel the cold and the muck in every striking, painterly frame. The brutality, appropriately barbaric without ever feeling gratuitous, is also allowed to play out as it should in long takes with dynamic camera movements without any quick-cut editing. Production merits aside, Eggers gets impressively oversized and fully committed performances from his entire ensemble.
The amazingly broad-shouldered Alexander Skarsgård gives his fiercest performance to date as the single-minded Amleth. Pushing his physicality to the max, he’s so primal and practically feral that one wouldn’t be surprised if Amleth had morphed into an actual wolf. Skarsgård isn’t all one-note bravado, however; what drives Amleth is always clear, and he even initially spares half-brother Gunnar in a brutal field-hockey game of Knattleikr. Nicole Kidman gets more than one chilling moment as Gudrún, and what’s more, she gets a “Big Little Lies” reunion with Skarsgård where the roles have been reversed. There are other parts for the otherworldly likes of Anya Taylor-Joy as mystical slave Olga, the seemingly last shred of love in Amleth’s life, and Björk (yes, that one!), back onscreen after Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” as a prophetess.
Leave it up to Eggers to make a Viking story that’s brutishly enthralling and full of such verisimilitude that viewers will swear it was made back in 895 AD. Even the grime and blood strewn across Skarsgård’s frequently naked torso feel free of artifice. Culminating at the “Gates of Hel”—an active volcano—the film stages an artfully composed sword fight between a nude Amleth and his equally nude opponent. As strategic as it is in covering up the actors’, um, swinging Thor hammers, it’s a duel to the death that somehow resists camp and goes right to badass.
Weighty and unforgiving but also visually arresting and often hypnotic, “The Northman” pummels and immerses you. It’s the perfect marriage of a bard and a wild filmmaker, getting every detail of the era just-so but also unapologetic and purposeful in bashing some skulls and slashing some throats and noses.
Focus Features is releasing “The Northman” (140 min.) in theaters on April 22, 2022. This Friday, April 22nd, it will open at the PFS Bourse Theater.