It seems suspiciously like fate. Here I am – only just returned from a week in Shetland, where I’ve been researching Vikings – and this film is waiting for me at the local cineplex. Of course I have to see it. I can’t not see it. But I have some reservations. For one thing, despite the film’s almost indecent rash of five star reviews, I haven’t been exactly enamoured by Robert Egger’s previous offerings, The Witch and (more especially) The Lighthouse, both of which felt like cases of style over content.
It’s clear from the get-go, that The Northman is a big step up for Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjon). His evocation of Viking life is vividly painted in freshly-spilled viscera across a massive landscape. The world-building here is dirty, ugly and thoroughly convincing. In the opening scenes, we meet young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), welcoming his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), back from his conquests. Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), is rather less welcoming and the reason for that soon becomes clear. She has secretly allied with Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who is determined to kill Aurvandil and his son, and take Gudrún as his wife.
If the story seems familiar, it ought to. The ancient Scandinavian legend of Amleth is the tale that initially inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.
Amleth manages to escape from the bloody mutiny and, when next we meet him, he’s grown into a thoroughly buff Alexander Skarsgård, who, adopted by another tribe, has become a fully-fledged wolf warrior, a berserker. An ensuing battle sequence leaves no femur unshattered, no skull uncleft. Those viewers who wince at bloody violence may prefer to avoid this film at all costs – or spend a lot of time looking away from the screen.
Amleth learns that his uncle Fjölnir has had his stolen kingdom taken from him and has been exiled to Iceland, where he’s attempting to make a new life for himself as a sheep farmer. Gudrún has gone with him and Amleth knows that he must follow. So he disguises himself as a slave (by first branding his chest with a hot coal) and stows aboard a boat taking a consignment of workers over to Fjölnir. On the hazardous journey across the ocean, he meets up with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-professed earth witch, and quickly falls under her spell.
But can this new love quell the thirst for vengeance that has consumed him since childhood?
The Northman is by no means perfect. It’s at its best when depicting the savage lifestyle of the Vikings and I also love the hallucinatory images that often flood the screen, particularly Amleth’s repeated visions of the legendary Tree of Yggdrasill, where family members are suspended like ripening fruit from its entwined branches. There’s also a spectacular Valkerie ride that carries me headlong to Valhalla.
Kidman, though initially underused, does get one scene that puts an entirely different spin on circumstances and makes me appreciate why she’s a director’s go-to for so many difficult roles. I would also have liked to see more of Willem Dafoe who, as Heimar the Fool, has clearly been drafted in to fill the Yorrick-shaped hole in the piece.
If I have a criticism, it’s simply that the age-old theme of revenge offers little in the way of surprise – indeed, there’s one point in the film’s later stages that seems to offer a braver and less conventional solution to Amleth’s torture, should he be man enough to take it – but, perhaps inevitably, it’s thrown aside and our rugged hero goes back to the well-worn path he’s always been destined to tread. Which makes the final fiery confrontation a little underwhelming.
Still, there’s no doubt that this is Eggers’ most assured film thus far – and I’m definitely interested to see where he goes next.