Roberts Eggers’ The Northman is an intense and bloody revenge tale, as well as being a refreshingly uncommercial depiction of Viking folklore.
I don’t consider myself a particularly macho man. I’m more at home with a book than a beer in my hand and I hate the thought of confrontation so much that I could barely even watch that Will Smith moment at the Oscars. But The Northman made me want to tear off my shirt, let out a Viking roar and run into battle waving a sword above my head. Whether I could even lift the thing remains to be seen.
The movie is a bloody, muddy revenge saga, steeped in Northern European folklore and directed by Robert Eggers, determined to outdo the wildness of his previous movies – no mean feat given those films are The Witch and The Lighthouse. Eggers here takes the helm of a film which, even as you’re watching it, seems so unlikely to have come through Hollywood that you can’t quite believe it’s real. An early scene features a mostly naked Ethan Hawke and his young son crawling on all fours and barking like dogs – as well as farting like men – in a fire-lit cave while Willem Dafoe yells at them in terrifying close-up. It’s not exactly Horrible Histories.
Eggers has teamed up with Icelandic poet Sjón to pen the script, based on the same folkloric tale that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. Or it inspired Disney to make The Lion King, depending on your preference. Alexander Skarsgård is Amleth, who vows revenge as a child when his father (Hawke) is murdered by his own brother – the treacherous Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir takes Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman) as his own bride and Amleth flees in order to evade his own death, eventually returning to his kingdom as a slave alongside young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).
It’s narratively a fairly simple piece of work, but Eggers imbues each frame with gargantuan scale. He directs like a man who has been given $90m to make his ridiculous Viking movie and frankly can’t believe his luck. One scene in which the camera tracks almost unbearably slowly through a violent assault in a village is a heart-stopping, virtuoso bit of filmmaking from a director at the top of his powers. Eggers is fond of framing his characters as tiny figures at the bottom of frame, dwarfed by the majesty of the scenery around them and resigned to their position in the tapestry of fate. It’s a film in which magic is always present, but it’s the wits and actions of humanity which drive the story to its inevitable, violent conclusion – a naked volcano sword fight, naturally.
The film exists in a constant state of macho intensity, powered forward by Skarsgård’s guttural roars and rippling abs which alternately glisten with either sweat or blood depending on the scene. It’s a performance of immense physical commitment, but backed up by palpable emotional pain beneath the swinging sword and promises of bloodshed – a sickness of revenge from which he can’t escape. Amleth is as vulnerable as he is violent and scenes between Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy have a tenderness and affection to them which sit deliberately awkwardly on Amleth’s face. He abandoned his humanity as a child and simply doesn’t know how to love.
As with all of Eggers previous work, the tone exists in a state of unpredictable madness, capable of lurching from post-coital forest chats to subterranean encounters with magical beings. The oppressive feel is maintained by the all-consuming, distorted thrum of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score – a gnarly, assaultive soundscape which keys the audience in to the orchestra of vengeance polluting Amleth’s brain and guiding his anger inexorably home to face his father’s killer.
While it’s a movie driven by its forceful, vicious energy, the performances find nuance beyond the basic trappings of the story. Kidman, in particular, is given layers well beyond the initially thin character she appears to be and Bang proves to be a terrifying, ruthless adversary. Taylor-Joy’s performance, though, really shines through as a beguiling sorceress who unlocks a future for Amleth beyond his quest for bloody retribution. “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she tells Amleth as she encourages him to bide his time, adding “I have the cunning to break their minds”.
The Northman, with its vicious blend of blood and ice, feels like the crowning achievement for one of the most idiosyncratic and unique filmmakers working in Hollywood today. It’s a work which is almost defiantly non-commercial, boasting a core of rigorous historical research that mingles with delightful lashings of folkloric wonder. And as much as it’s a stimulating and emotionally potent movie, there’s a lot to be said for its simple, primal effectiveness. I left the screening fired up, invigorated and with blood pumping through my veins. If that’s not precisely what cinema is about, then I don’t know what is.
Now where did I leave my war paint?
The Northman is in cinemas on 15th April.
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