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The Northman review - Robert Eggers's elemental Viking epic | reviews, news & interviews

The Northman review - Robert Eggers's elemental Viking epic

The Northman review - Robert Eggers's elemental Viking epic

Heads will roll: a violently over-the-top Norse revenge saga

Totally berserker: Alexander Skarsgård as AmlethAidan Monaghan/©2022 Focus Features LLC

With its wild, windswept seascape and cliff-top settlement, the first scene of The Northman, Robert Eggers’s first big-budget movie (around $90 million in the making), harks back, a little, to The Lighthouse (2019), a one-of-a-kind black and white marvel with only two protagonists.

(Cinematographer Jarin Blatschke has worked on all Eggers’s films, including his first, The Witch, as has costume designer Linda Muir).

But similarities end there, and if you wince occasionally at the violence in The Lighthouse, which includes being buried alive, attacks by a deranged supernatural seagull and drunken fight scenes between lighthouse keeper Willem Dafoe and his assistant Robert Pattinson, then The Northman may leave you reeling from the relentlessness of its Viking slaughter.

Raping and pillaging, decapitated men and horses, bitten-off noses, a man lurching into a hut holding his own entrails as they spill out: it’s all there on a massive scale, along with some dodgy accents (there’s Northern Irish or Scottish in there as well as a mysterious, often unintelligible Old Norse brew).

It’s rather ripe for parodying, though you can’t deny the film’s power and scale as well as the beauty and strangeness of the landscape, in turn green and lush and black and icy (in fact Northern Ireland was a stand-in, Game of Thrones-style, for Iceland, due to Covid). And Eggers’s famously meticulous attention to period detail and authenticity is apparent in the Viking linens, tapestries, shields, jewellery and carvings. Even the score, by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, uses obscure Viking instruments.

And there are wonderfully strange moments, such as Björk’s unforgettable turn – her first film role since Dancer in The Dark (2000) - as a blind Slav seer, covered in beads and with cowrie shells over her eyes, wearing a fantastic headdress of barley sheaves. Her collaborator, Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, is Eggers’s co-writer on the movie.

north1The saga begins in AD 895 and is a reworking of the Hamlet story, with Alexander Skarsgård as Viking prince Amleth (pictured above), enormous muscles bulging, and usually bleeding, beneath arm bracelets. In the first scenes he is still a happy child (played by Oscar Novak) whose father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has just returned from battle to his fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey, somewhere near the Orkneys.

To prepare Amleth for his eventual succession to the throne, they undergo a ritual together in an underground cave, on all fours like wolves, farting and belching and roaring. They lap something hallucinogenic from bowls, presided over by a court fool (Willem Defoe) and have marvellous visions of an intricate, towering Tree of Kings – a recurring symbol - from which dead and future rulers hang from branches.

As Amleth and his father wander back through the woods, the king is killed, decapitated (so many heads roll you can’t count them all) by his treacherous brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang; The Square; BBC’s Dracula; Daddy). He carries off a screaming Queen Gudrún (an icy, white-blonde Nicole Kidman, pictured below, with an accent about as convincing as the one in Nine Perfect Strangers. But she’s still a luminous, furious presence.)

northSomehow, impossibly, young Amleth escapes by boat to the Land of Rus, where we find him years later as a glowering, hardened Viking berserker, massacring innocents and tearing out victims’ throats with his teeth (takes you back to Skarsgärd’s Eric Northman in True Blood), obsessed with fulfilling his destiny of murdering uncle Fjölnir.

He learns that his uncle is now farming in Iceland - "Norway took his kingdom,” he’s told by a fellow-berserker. “I will avenge you, father, I will save you, mother,” is his muttered one-track mantra. He disguises himself as a Slavic slave on a Viking rowboat that’s bound for Fjölnir’s land and meets fellow slave, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy; The Witch; The Queen’s Gambit; Peaky Blinders) to whom he briefly reveals his revenge plans. “My earth magic will stoke the flames of your sword,” is one of her come-on lines.

Soon he’s all set to wreak havoc and ruin his uncle’s cosy set-up with Queen Gudrún and their two sons, Thórir, (a wonderfully cool Gustav Lindh) and Gunnar (Elliott Rose). Before he gets started, he proves his fighting excellence in a particularly nasty Viking version of lacrosse (basically, you club the other team to death, which might go down well in some boarding-schools). Obviously Gudrún is disguising her hatred of his evil uncle. Or is she?

Never mind, he’s led by ravens to a sword, a magical night blade that will help him fulfil his purpose after he’s wrestled it from the arms of a skeleton king; Olga helps out with her earth magic, which involves poisonous shrooms that drive men into self-stabbing frenzies. Ghastly tableaux of dismembered bodies pinned to walls bewilder Fjölnir and family. “These wounds are not of this world, I will prepare a sacrifice,” declares the housekeeper, who quickly proves she’s good at finding defenceless female slaves to offer up. Worse is to come, as well as a quasi-incestuous encounter between Amleth and his mother.

north2Before the spectacular final run-in between uncle and nephew, naked on an erupting volcano, there are moments of calm and hope between Amleth and Olga (pictured above) as they bathe in a healing hot spring. But as most of Amleth’s communication so far has been in mythic Norse growls, it's strangely disorienting to hear him say mildly, “I haven’t felt close to another person since I was a child.” Bring on the Viking counsellors.

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