The Northman (2022)

ROBERT EGGERS

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 2022. , , , , . Screenplay by , Robert Eggers. Cinematography by . Produced by Robert Eggers, , , , Alexander Skarsgård. Music by , . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Bringing lore of a time gone by to life with a sense of historical realism and a flair for the magic of ancient belief is a skill that director Robert Eggers has been sharpening on the whetstone of his massive talent since his magnificent debut, The Witch in 2015, and with which he continues to thrill his fans in this grimy, violent drama based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Young Amleth is thrilled to see his father, the King Aurvandill War-Raven () come home from battle to their Hrafnsey stronghold where they participate in a trance-induced rite of passage under the guidance of the court’s jester (). The King is quickly dispatched to the rewards of Valhalla by his treacherous brother Fjölnir (), who lays waste to anyone loyal to the dead king and kidnaps his helpless wife Gudrún () to his own bed.

Amleth manages a quick escape by boat, found and raised by Vikings (and played as an adult by ), occupied in an odd bit of pillaging and raping of a village in Rus when he encounters the vision of a seeress (played, briefly but with delightful vigour, by the one and only , whose frequent songwriting collaborator Sjon co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers), who informs him of his unavoidable fate: he is to return to his people where he will slay his father’s killer, save his mother and return the royal lineage to its rightful place.

Learning that his evil uncle has actually been usurped by Harald of Norway and is living in exile in Iceland, Amleth disguises himself in slave’s garments and boards a ship of fellow captives, meeting and making a connection with a Slavic sorceress named Olga () who becomes his confidante when they arrive at Fjölnir’s compound, where they are forced to perform degrading drudgework. Keeping his head down and taking abuse from Fjölnir’s elder son Thorir (), Amleth spends his nights searching out his path of destiny, given directions on where to find an enchanted sword that he will use to make things come to pass (the sequence of finding the sword is among the film’s best).

When he finally reunites with his long-estranged mother, who has had a second child with her new husband, the story is pushed in a new direction, a more complex truth than the one Amleth has been pursuing with such devoted singularity, informing him that faith, truth and destiny are not the sheer and simple realities that he thinks they are. Now, rather than allowing himself to be pulled by a mindless surrender to the inevitable, Amleth must make a choice to either go towards life and leave darkness behind, or violently conquer the hate in his heart; we know which he will choose and we know it’s a shame that he does, but we also have a great time watching him slice and dice the people who have been smacking him around with such careless disregard for so long.

Not that Eggers ever lets either his storytelling or its execution boil down to such simplistic principles, this isn’t a BraveheartJohn Wick mashup but an exciting, bloody and wholly engaging work of violence and vengeance enriched by vibrant cultural detail and intelligent but smartly restrained investigations into the dark recesses of the human soul. Eggers has plenty to say to anyone who wants to shake their heads disapprovingly at artistic works either of the past or those depicting them: Bridgerton fans beware, this is not a film that softens history by acting like we’ve all been one happy, diverse family for two thousand years (the shows and films needed by the people who were basically the inspiration for the Cook’s Chicken scenes in Ghost World). Morality is relative whether we want to believe that or not, and Skarsgard’s sympathetic tale of vengeance comes hot on the heels of watching him and his berserkers get high and burn a village to the ground, shooting arrows into men and dragging women by the hair into their rooms just for kicks while barely casting a sidelong glance at the toll of their efforts.

Kidman’s role appears to be window dressing for much of the movie until she lays bare her own tale, in this world where men think nothing of following their instinct for mutual self-destruction, a woman’s survival involves making what she can of her own ties to the inevitable, and this great actress is fearless about revealing the rot that this struggle has done to her heart and mind. Skarsgard isn’t as fit for the task, however, for while he remains one of the most physically impressive specimens to make his way onto the big screen and has the right bearing for the part, his delivery of dialogue (which includes bumping up his own slight Swedish accent to full-blown ABBA) weakens his presence, there’s always the sense that he’s not sure if he’s going to be taken seriously every time he speaks, the voice yells and roars but the eyes are pools of uncertainty and fear; one often watches his facial expressions and wonders if he knows he’s in a movie.

Never mind, however, as sexual arousal is as significant and worthy an emotional response to an actor as intellectual admiration is, and his lack of insecurity about revealing his rippling muscles is skillfully directed by one of the few truly great artists of his generation, a director whose imagination rooted in research is one of the most rewarding experiences that audiences can have involving a high budget and glamorous movie stars.

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