Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Robert Eggers and Sjon
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke
Classification R; 136 minutes
Opens in theatres April 22
If I had to choose one word to describe Robert Eggers’s new Viking epic The Northman, it would be: “Yaaaaaarghghghghhgghghghghghh!” The brutal, bloody and bare-chested revenge thriller is essentially one big, long war cry – a guttural, primal grunt of a movie that is all raging testosterone and incendiary machismo. And I loved nearly every minute of it.
A retelling of Hamlet – or rather a pretelling of it, given that Shakespeare’s work was directly inspired by the medieval Scandinavian legend that Eggers and his co-writer, the Icelandic poet Sjon, explore here – The Northman follows the riches-to-rags tale of Amleth, who as a young boy watches his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murder his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and kidnap his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). Escaping his own death thanks to the incompetence of Fjolnir’s lackey, Amleth flees for Iceland, uttering a vengeance mantra that carries him through years of hardship: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.”
Flash-forward a few decades and Amleth is a strapping, frequently shirtless berserker warrior (Alexander Skarsgard), who spends his days raiding Slavic villages and generally terrorizing the world. Until one moment of fate leads him back to his original quest for comeuppance, which ropes in the beautiful slave/pseudo-witch Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and two spiritual figures (one played by an eye-less Bjork, the other by the talking skull of Willem Dafoe – it’s just that kind of movie). From there, Eggers plunges audiences into a thundering enterprise of high-budget carnage, the kind of cinematic experience that leaves you feeling sucker-punched, exhausted and somehow hungry for more. Guts are spilled, throats are slit, and the lines between what is real and what is imagined are blurred with the thick smudging of blood.
The film is a marked step up – in size, ambition, artistic commitment – for Eggers, who digs further here into his obsession with how our natural world exists alongside a more magical realm, after similar explorations in The Witch (starring Joy) and The Lighthouse (featuring Dafoe). But while Eggers’s previous films were exercises in different, competing stylistic approaches – rigidly controlled for The Witch, and unrestrained gonzo-ness for The Lighthouse – The Northman is a delightful marriage of the two. It takes masterful precision, for instance, to stage The Northman’s single-take village raid, which follows Amleth as he and his fellow wolf warriors burn an entire settlement to the ground. Just as it takes an unhinged imagination to come up with Amleth and Fjolnir’s climactic Gates of Hell volcano-backdropped sword battle, a moment of fiery madness that is beyond outrageous.
Which makes Eggers’s recent comments in The New Yorker that this version of The Northman isn’t quite his preferred cut – that somehow there exists a wilder, less studio-safe version of the movie out there – absolutely flooring. If Focus Features is fine with, say, bankrolling the moment that Amleth assembles a corpse-composed collage to frighten his uncle, or a late-film scene involving Gudrun and enough incestuous overtones to fill the library of V.C. Andrews, then I am extremely curious what gave them pause.
Regardless of what happened between shooting, editing, test-screenings and final delivery, The Northman arrives like something of an instant cult hit, singular and bold. A ferociously committed Skarsgard will awaken all sorts of feelings in the film’s teenage audience (this feels like the actor’s 300 moment), Joy brings a wicked sense of dreamy danger to her unfortunately underwritten role, and Kidman’s frightening turn as a woman more in control of her world than any of the primordial men around her might realize trumps whatever wonky accent she’s attempting to employ. (Let’s also pause for a moment to congratulate Eggers on staging a stealth reunion of Big Little Lies’ Skarsgard and Kidman, who respectfully played abusive husband and terrified wife on that HBO series.)
The Northman isn’t the first contemporary Viking movie to push audiences’ endurance levels (Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is inarguably a tougher sit), but it does feel like the last Viking movie we will need for some time. Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of Yaaaaaarghghghghhgghghghghghh.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.