Film Review: ‘The Northman’ an ambitious, but lean revenge tale

'The Northman' is out in UAE cinemas tomorrow


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Published: Wed 18 May 2022, 6:01 PM

The first sign that not everyone in Robert Eggers’ 10th-century Viking revenge tale The Northman has their priorities entirely straight comes early in the film, when the Viking king Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home to the North Atlantic kingdom of Hrafnsey after a year of fighting overseas.

After trudging up on horseback to the snowy cliffside village, Aurvandil’s queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), greets him warmly and, after a hug for their son, Amleth (Oscar Novak), urges him to bed with her. Aurvandil, though, says he has something more pressing to attend to. Rather than join his wife, he takes Amleth to scurry around a fiery cave on all fours, half-naked and barking, while chanting manly oaths of honour with the court fool (Willem Dafoe).

The brother of Aurvandil, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), cuts the throat of the king, assumes control and drags Gudrún off on his shoulders to take as his wife. Young Amleth — “just a puppy,” his mom had called him — flees in a rowboat on an empty sea, vowing his revenge.

Where are we, exactly? Smack in the middle of the Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But in this Viking ur-Hamlet (Eggers penned the script with Icelandic poet Sjón) there’s no existential hand-wringing for Amleth over duty and fate. He lives for vengeance. When we next see him, he’s a ferocious and muscle-bound marauder — “a beast, cloaked in man-flesh” — who would snap most stage-bound Hamlets like a twig. Amleth (a bulked up Alexander Skarsgård) is less likely to soliloquize with a skull than sever one from someone’s body.

Once he’s had his fill doing mean Viking stuff (there’s a beautifully and brutally staged raid of a Slavic village), Amleth brands himself a slave and slips onto a boat headed for Iceland, where Fjölnir has moved his kingdom to a verdant grassy hillside. Among the workers there is Anya Taylor-Joy, a veteran of The Witch. With justice tantalizing close, Amleth takes up arms against a sea of troubles.

There’s great method but not enough madness in The Northman, Eggers’ third and easily most ambitious film. With historical rigor and aged atmospheres, Eggers has already established himself as one of his generation’s most distinctive voices. His first film, 2015’s The Witch, was set among Puritan settlers in 1630s New England. His 2019 film The Lighthouse starred Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as mad lighthouse keepers off the Northeast coast in the 1890s. All three films not only take their history seriously, but burrow into bygone — or maybe not so bygone — nightmares. As is incanted in the opening of The Northman, they “summon the shadows of ages past.”

The recent trend toward folklore in film can, in lesser movies, seem like the cinema version of a paleo diet. But Eggers’ films have carried the potency of myths resurrected and reanimated, and in doing so have unearthed rich new territory. The Northman, with a reported budget north of $70 million, is a bigger canvas and more archetypal. With sweeping Scandinavian vistas and a finale set among rivers of burning lava atop an ash-spewing volcano, The Northman is forged in a powerfully primal fire.

It is, though a lean story, with not as much meat on the bone as its ambition may call for. The scenes with Amleth’s mother, with a fiery Kidman, perhaps comes too late in a film that, after a long journey, begins to more dramatically tug at the masculine myth it’s predicated on. Amleth’s vows aren’t an oath but a curse, thus proving another age-old adage: Never trust Willem Dafoe.

The Northman

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman

Director: Robert Eggers

Two and a half stars out of four

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