The Northman

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Northman
"You genuinely feel how much his characters have faith in their gods and their folk tales as an extension of their everyday lives" | Photo: Universal

He may be known for the arthouse rather than the mainstream but writer/director Robert Eggers' action and ideas are never knowingly undersold. Tone is incredibly important to this Viking tale of revenge, which is so full-on it could easily tip into parody, and Eggers makes his attentions clear from the off with a spot of portentous voiceover and strong visuals - it feels Shakespearean, and so, perhaps, it should, given that its central figure Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) was also the inspiration for Hamlet.

Eggers previously tackled American puritanism with The Witch and late 1800s superstition in The Lighthouse, taking an immersive approach to the belief systems in his films. You genuinely feel how much his characters have faith in their gods and their folk tales as an extension of their everyday lives, to the extent that the dividing line between what is real and what is imagined becomes almost nonexistent.

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His films also have an elemental feel, that's particularly in evidence here, with water present as icy snow and waves, while fire is represented both in ritual and by way of volcano. The story, co-written by Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón is as old as the volcano itself and sees young Amleth witness the death of his Viking king father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his dad's brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Going on the run, he chants the mantra that basically drives the story: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Eggers' mantra is equally straightforward: "Go big or go home".

Eggers' approach offers some glorious moments, including an atavistic coming-of-age ritual in which Ethan Hawke and his young co-star Oscar Novak (playing Amleth as a child) bring home the Viking connection to the natural world as they howl like wolves or a viking raid, shot in a long take that brings home its murderous menance. The problem with Eggers' love of a big mood is that, as with all his films, he operates at such a high level of intensity that he has barely anywhere else to go as the action progresses. I longed for some of the subtlety and allegorical underpinning of David Lowery's The Green Knight - hinted at in the film's more mystical moments. Anya Taylor-Joy (who got her break in The Witch) turns up as love interest Olga - not that Eggers has much time for such fripperies, a shame given the matriarchal structures of Icelandic society - while Bjork has an enjoyable cameo as the Viking equivalent of Macbeth's three witches, although I do have to question the casting of Nicole Kidman as Amleth's mother (she is only nine years older than Skarsgård and looks a lot less than). You can also feel the studio at work when it comes to the film's final act, or rather, acts, uncertain whether to offer happiness or tragedy it tries, not entirely successfully, to go for both in a bid to provide something for everyone. There's plenty of might about Eggers' films but I could use a bit more heart.

Reviewed on: 15 Apr 2022
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The son of a Viking king is out for vegeance.

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