‘The Northman’: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman get fierce in a boldly bloody Viking saga
Epic holds our attention with unforgettable visuals and the sheer, raw audacity of its premise.
“I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” — The Viking warrior Almeth’s mantra in “The Northman.”
Robert Eggers’ bloody and bone-cracking and yet beautiful Viking saga “The Northman” is set primarily in 10th-century Iceland—but every frame of this 137-minute epic makes us feel as if we’ve been plunged neck-deep into the violent dread of Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell. Even the kings and queens and landowners in this fiery fever dream seem miserable and unfulfilled, while just about everyone else is either a brutally cruel henchman guarding and abusing slaves in forced labor camps, or one of the legions of slaves who are treated as sub-human creatures.
This is not to say “The Northman” itself is unrelentingly grim. Director Eggers (“The Witch,” “Lighthouse”) is a boldly creative visionary, and his stunning visuals and hallucinatory staging of scenes makes for the kind of movie that really should be seen on the big screen. Drawing on the same well of Scandinavian culture and folklore (with a sprinkling of known historical events) that provided the foundation for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Eggers and his co-writer, the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, have crafted a sprawling and visceral tale with elements of everything from “Gladiator” to “Conan the Barbarian” to “Braveheart,” and at times it reminded me of a particularly pricey episode of “Game of Thrones.” Greatly enhancing that mix is a cast of some of our most interesting actors, from Ethan Hawke to Nicole Kidman to Anya Taylor-Joy to the Skarsgårds Alexander and Bill to Willem Dafoe as “Heimir the Fool” and if you’re casting your Viking epic and there’s a call for a “Heimir the Fool,” who better to answer that call than Willem Dafoe?
Focus Features presents a film directed by Robert Eggers and written by Eggers and Sjón. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity). Running time: 137 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
“The Northman” opens with an extended prologue in which King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, wounded but victorious, where he is greeted by his loyal, long-locked wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his adoring young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). The celebration is short-lived, however, when Aurvandil’s nefarious and bloodthirsty brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), murders the king and takes the queen as his own bride.
The terrified but resourceful young Amleth (and yes, Shakespeare created “Hamlet” as an anagram for “Amleth”) manages to escape, at which point we flash forward some 20 years, with Alexander Skarsgård taking on the role of Amleth, who is all dirty and muddy and battered and bruised but is also so built and so ripped it looks as if he discovered the first Equinox gym and hasn’t skipped a workout in years. Amleth has become a great Viking warrior, but he becomes a stowaway and deliberately surrenders to slavery just so he can infiltrate the remote plantation farm owned by evil ol’ Uncle Fjölnir, whose reign was apparently cut short—but hey, it appears he got a pretty sweet real estate deal as part of his exile.
Along the way, Amleth meets and instantly falls in love with a Slavic slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has a fiercely independent personality and just might be a sorceress, but probably not, but maybe. Once Amleth arrives at his destination, he’s shocked to see his mother is still with Fjölnir (neither Almeth’s uncle nor mother recognizes him), appears to be happy and has even given him a son, Thorir (Gustav Lindh). Before Amleth confronts his mother to see if she still needs saving, before he faces off with his murderous uncle in the inevitable duel to the death, the story makes room for all kinds of violence, madness, sorcery, special effects and award-worthy costumes. Why, there’s even time for a deadly match of a sport that appears to be a cross between croquet, cricket and Quidditch, only with extreme violence and the bashing of skulls.
With director Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke alternating between vibrant bursts of saturated colors and muted tones of stormy skies filled with ominous clouds and flocks of ravens (there’s a reason the official term for a flock is “Unkindness of Ravens”) and snowflakes that dance in the sky like embers in the aftermath of a deadly fire, “The Northman” holds our attention with the unforgettable visuals and the sheer, raw audacity of its premise and its unrelenting violence. Alexander Skarsgård has never been the most emotive of actors, but he’s perfectly cast here as the ferociously vengeance-minded Amleth, with Anya-Taylor Joy lending her wonderful ethereal weirdness (and I mean that in the best possible way) to Olga. Nicole Kidman is only nine years older than Skarsgård and there’s no attempt to age her character over the decades, proving that even in the 10th century, Hollywood never blinks at this sort of gender-biased aging of actresses, but she delivers effectively duplicitous work while Dafoe and Hawke lend bearded intensity to their outstanding supporting performances. (There’s never a scene in this film in which we don’t have the pleasure of watching at least one great actor leaning all the way into the material.)
“The Northman” is often insanely over the top and there are moments when it feels as if Eggers could maybe ease his foot off the pyrotechnic pedals, but still, this is one of the most strikingly original and brutally effective movies of the year so far.