Robert Eggers, one of the most vital contemporary American film-makers thanks to his uniquely captivating movies The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), scales things up considerably for this historical epic about a Viking prince's quest for vengeance.
Sometime around the 10th century, a Scandinavian king (Ethan Hawke) returns home from war to his queen (Nicole Kidman) and adolescent son Amleth (Oscar Novak). After partaking in a ritualistic rite of passage with his father, Amleth witnesses the king's brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), murder his father.
Thought dead, Amleth escapes, vowing revenge, and grows up to be a hulk of a man played by Alexander Skarsgard, now with considerable abilities as a killer honed by years of being a Viking berserker.
After an especially bloody raid (which includes a bravura single-shot sequence in which Skarsgard pummels multiple poor souls), Amleth encounters a Seeress (played by Icelandic singer Bjork), who informs him that his opportunity for revenge will soon present itself. Sure enough, Amleth is able to get himself sold as a slave into his now-deposed uncle's ownership, where he plots to kill Fjolnir and rescue his mother, who is now Fjolnir's wife.
Apparently spurred on by Swedish star Skarsgard's desire to make a Viking movie, Eggers teamed up with Icelandic novelist/poet Sjon to write the screenplay based on the myth that also inspired Hamlet.
Both of Eggers' previous films demonstrate a proclivity for intense visions of the past informed by dream-like imagery and a grimy, muddy aesthetic. As you might imagine, those skills are very well-suited to a bloody Viking epic, and there is a wide variety of aesthetic wonders to behold here.
In a post Game of Thrones world, it's a challenge to make anything medieval seem especially brutal or bold, but Eggers easily clears that bar, evoking a primal, mythic quality that widens the eyes.
But although there is not a single dull moment in this big-budget fever dream, there is a minor sense that something has been lost, emotionally speaking, with Eggers working on such a large canvas. He may be slightly better suited to more intimate storytelling.
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That said, it feels like a miracle that this film exists, and it's worth celebrating for the pure artistic ambition of it all. Big swings like this are always a good thing.
Skarsgard looks the part but can never quite shake a slight contemporary quality. The Witch breakout Anya Taylor-Joy is great as a fellow slave, and The Lighthouse star Willem Dafoe is a hoot in a brief role as a jester/soothsayer. Danish actor Bang is fantastic as well, but in the acting stakes, Kidman (who played Skarsgard's wife in Big Little Lies) is the real star player here, once again displaying her ability to draw upon unparalleled levels of intensity in her performing.
An all-too-rare modern example of an auteur-driven epic, The Northman demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe
Director: Robert Eggers
Running time: 137 minutes
Rating: R16 (Graphic violence, cruelty, animal cruelty & sexual material)
Verdict: A big, bold, bloody good time.