The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

In "The Northman," Viking carnage flows with an elegant, sometimes mischievous sense of showmanship. The legend of Amleth, a vengeful Scandinavian prince, gets a re-working from director Robert Eggers, who's no stranger to literate, historical dramas with elements of the supernatural. Here, the tale is almost an excuse for Eggers to combine a grimy, brutal sense of aesthetic realism with a haunting atmosphere of unnatural dread. That authenticity takes this movie a long way - such tales of battle, valor, and treachery are heightened and mythologized by the characters as they happen, perhaps as a way of forging some understanding and acceptance of their world's capricious cruelties.

As much as I have loved alliterative poetry ever since completely failing to read "Beowulf" in the original Old English at a young age, I don't think I realised until "The Northman" just how much intense, raging momentum could be packed into the distinctive, archaic patterns of that form. A scene early on has the Vikings, dressed in the animal hides of berserkers, dancing in a perfect, even tuneful rhythm while a war poem is bellowed out. It's the film's best evocation of all the themes coursing through it: life as ritualized violence, pattern and repetition, men reducing or elevating themselves to the status of ravenous wild animals.

An extended prologue introduces us to a kingdom on a stormy peninsula somewhere in the North Atlantic. King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) has returned from a lengthy war campaign to Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his young son Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak). Having been wounded in battle, the king wants to prepare for his son to succeed him to the throne. Soon after, he is ambushed by soldiers loyal to his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who offers the coup de grace to Aurvandil. He then commits fratricide and takes everything that his brother once owned (including his wife) as his own.

By the time Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) becomes an adult, he has long forgotten his vow to avenge his father and rescue his mother, consumed instead by wreaking havoc on defenseless Slavic villages as a Viking. But he is haunted by dreams hinting at his fate and ends up doing whatever is necessary to track down Fjölnir. Following the sacking of a village, he learns that Fjölnir has been deposed and is now a farmer in Iceland with two sons, the younger from his marriage to Amleth's mother. Pretending to be a captive slave, Amleth makes his way to his uncle's farm, and unknown to his family, prepares for revenge.

In other words, "The Northman" is "Hamlet." Or at least both were derived from the same source material, a Norse legend set in the early 900s about the revenge of a prince upon the uncle who murdered his father and wed his mother. However, while there was a surfeit of talking in Shakespeare's version of the tragedy, Eggers' film features very little of it, allowing the visuals to impel the narrative forward. The movie's otherwise grounded and sparse backdrop contains a mysterious air of imposing doom. This is a world in which prophesies and enchanted weapons are as commonplace as rolling hills, stone-and-wood edifices, and engrained cruelty.

It’s eventually the prophet Seeress (Björk) who reminds Amleth of his familial mission, prompting him to blend in with Slavic slaves on the ship where he meets the stonily alluring Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). After the film's single moment of quiet - a distantly shot coital scene between him and Olga - Amleth invades his uncle's farm and begins to uncover deeper truths behind his father's murder. Because the story is presented through the eyes of Amleth, we generally perceive him as being a righteous avenger - at least until Gudrun disabuses him of a few foundational principles.

Obviously, the story here is different from the original legend. It is enjoyable to see how the screenwriters incorporate and twist elements of it along with "Hamlet," such as a scene in which the skull of a once-beloved court fool (played by Willem Dafoe in the prologue) offers insight and a confrontation in the queen's chambers, which transforms the incestuous subtext of Shakespeare's scene into the actual text. Eggers and co-writer Sjón essentially have reduced the tale to its groundwork. From there, Amleth's scheme to psychologically destroy and ultimately murder his uncle becomes one guided by religious rituals and aided by relics of folklore. The real foundations for his goal, however, are traditions of familial obligation and the contemporary code of what it means to be a warrior and a man.

The role of Amleth requires more presence than acting skill, and Skarsgård looks every inch the taciturn hunk of brawn that the script demands; at the same time, he brings to the role both a shrewdness and a sensitivity that transcend the script's occasional limitations, and elevates what might, in other hands, have been corny lines or clichéd gestures into moments that are truly invigorating. Everyone else is just as committed to the film's impassioned, theatrical outline: Hawke's king is warm and authoritative, but with glimmers of uncertainty and foolishness hidden underneath, and Anya Taylor-Joy is comely, loyal, and deadly as Olga, a sorceress with wily confidence and no small amount of cunning.

Drawing on his background as a production designer, Eggers meticulously created remote settings in his previous films, but now widens his view. Consequently, his immersive approach and stylistic flair creates one unflinchingly chaotic scene after another, reminding viewers why he's one of the most unique visual artists working today. His visuals here are characteristically stunning, juxtaposing claustrophobic, torchlit interiors with frantic battle scenes that depict atrocities in an implied yet shocking manner, with acts that we don't see in full, but understand are abhorrent. Murder comes in brutal long takes, filled with mud and viscera and all the blunt-force trauma that could be mustered.

"The Northman," in all of its impeccable craft and diligent verisimilitude, is a rousing adventure and a stirring drama. While the prototypical story happily pledges itself to the cinematic tradition of the bluntly aggressive historical action epic, Eggers and Sjón marginally upend expectations and remain steadfastly committed to their tone of abstract expressionism, which slowly weaves a spell capable of ensorcelling fans of fantasy. The real achievement is how Eggers evolves this tale from one of single-minded vengeance to the realization that an entire group of people need to be avenged. By the end, it is simply the story of how violence, casually enacted for no reason or seemingly justified for good reason, serves as its own fuel.

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