Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman (Focus Features)
There are many qualities to admire about The Northman, but subtlety is not one of them. This is a movie that announces its intentions in capital letters, and proceeds with an unrelenting sense of high drama, with characters speaking in declarative sentences that are the stuff of legend. They occasionally sound like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, but that type of artificiality is built into the type of movie this is. It’s not old-fashioned in a way comparable to Ben-Hur, it’s meant to evoke Beowulf. There’s not a touch of modernity to The Northman, which is part of its power: it’s primal, it’s brutal and utterly relentless.
Directed by Robert Eggers, who helped begin the trend of the elevated horror movie with The Witch and followed it with the absolute craziness of The Lighthouse, The Northman is the story of Amleth, the prince of a small Irish kingdom whose father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who kidnaps his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). The boy Amleth escapes and is raised by Viking marauders, and as an adult (played by Alexander Skarsgard), after receiving a prophecy from a blind seer (Bjork, in her first film role since Dancer in the Dark over two decades ago), Amleth disguises himself as a slave, and alongside his fellow prisoner Olga of the Birth Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) he is sold to Fjolnir, who was deposed from his kingdom and escaped to Iceland with Gudrun.
The Northman is based on the same legend from which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet: a young prince vows revenge against the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother. But while the basis for the story is the same, the intentions of the stories are vastly different. Eggers eschews the poetry of Shakespeare for unrelenting brutality. The film does not soft-pedal just how bleak the lives of these characters would be. If ever a movie epitomized the Hobbesian idea that life is nasty, brutish and short, it’s The Northman. The scenes showing Amleth as part of a group of Viking marauders is one of the most violent, harrowing scenes put on screen in recent memory, and it’s important to note that Amleth is the ostensible good guy. A lesser movie might downplay the fact that Amleth is not appreciably better than Fjolnir or the rest of the characters.
Because subtlety is absolutely anathema to a story like this one, the actors have to commit fully to the conceit, and all of them do. Alexander Skarsgard might be the only choice to play a ripped Viking marauder, and he doesn’t flinch from anything the character has to do. Nicole Kidman has some truly shocking moments; for those who (quite wrongly) dismissed her work in Being the Ricardos, this feels more from the actress who pushed boundaries in movies like Birth and Destroyer. Willem Dafoe appears briefly as Heimir the Fool — if ever there was a movie that requires a character named Heimir the Fool, it’s this one — and channels that manic, insane energy that worked so well in The Lighthouse.
There is a lot of The Northman that requires audiences to adjust. Eggers doesn’t approach the film with even an ounce of irony, because winking at the audience would be utterly fatal to the story. The movie demands commitment to the world of legend that it creates, and in return, Eggers finds immense visual beauty in the world he creates. Eggers has a particularly keen eye for the Icelandic wilderness the characters inhabit. It feels simultaneously vast yet cramped in Fjolnir’s tiny, isolated fiefdom. The film culminates, unsurprisingly, in an epic confrontation between Amleth and Fjolnir in a location that is simultaneously ridiculous yet nonetheless entirely appropriate, which seems just about right for the movie. It’s relentless, brutal, and utterly sincere about everything Eggers puts on screen.
In theaters April 22nd
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