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the northman review
Seeking revenge for his father's murder, a Viking warrior poses as a slave.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Robert Eggers

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe

the northman poster

"I will avenge you Father. I will save you Mother. I will kill you Fjolnir."

So goes the mantra repeated by the vengeful hero of Robert Eggers' blood-soaked and mud-caked Viking thriller The Northman. Co-written with Icelandic writer Sjón (a writer on the recent oddity Lamb), Eggers' film is an adaptation of the 13th century tale of Amleth. The story has previously been adapted by no less than Willy the Shake as Hamlet. If that knowledge threatens to put off viewers more inclined towards action than soliloquies, fear not. Like Denis Villeneuve with Frank Herbert's Dune, Eggers has chiseled the legend of Amleth down to the basics of the story, fashioning a simple tale of revenge in which the hero sets out to avenge his Dad, save his Mom, and slaughter Fjolnir.

the northman review

Amleth's quest for revenge begins when his father (Ethan Hawke), a king of some God forsaken territory in the wintry North Atlantic, is slain by his traitorous brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who subsequently makes off with Amleth's mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), slung over his shoulder. Young Amleth flees, vowing to some day kill his uncle and free his mother.

That day comes a decade or so later when Amleth is now a hulking berserker played by Alexander Skarsgård in the role he's been waiting for all his life. Resembling the sort of Scandinavian centre-back a relegation battling football team might send up for a corner, Amleth is part of a Viking raiding party raping and pillaging in the land of Rus. During one raid on a village, Amleth overhears the details of Fjolnir's whereabouts – he's now residing in Iceland, having made Gudrún his wife. Disguising himself as a captured Slav slave, Amleth sneaks onto a boat bound for Iceland and awaits his moment to strike, aided by visions of various figures (including Bjork) who advise him on how best to conduct his revenge mission, all while falling for white-haired Slav sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, rehashing her dodgy New Mutants accent).

the northman review

Just as David Lowery did with The Green Knight, Eggers takes full advantage of the Irish landscape, which makes for an impressive stand-in for Iceland. Seeing characters roll around in actual mud in real fields adds a verisimilitude that's been sorely lacking in most movies of this sort in the years since Braveheart. CG is of course present, but it's used sparingly, enhancing rather than overwhelming scenes and set-pieces. While not on the level of W. Percy Day, the matte work, with exploding volcanoes in the distance, adds to the sense that this is the sort of landscape that can't help but inspire larger than life legends.

Arriving on the scene with a pair of essentially arthouse movies in The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers may not seem the most obvious choice to direct a movie in which many throats are slashed and swords are shoved through heads. But Eggers proves himself a master of staging action, with a couple of set-pieces here that are as good as anything the fantasy/historical epic sub-genres have given us. While it's a throwback to the Hollywood epics of the '50s and '60s and their bloodier Braveheart era descendants, The Northman is heavily influenced by Russian filmmaking, with scenes that strongly echo those found in the films of Klimov (Amleth staring into the screen as an atrocity occurs in the background is a clear nod to the grueling Come and See) and Aleksei German, whose rambling tracking shots are replicated to thrilling effect in a single-take siege on a village that plays like a Bruegel painting made real. A sequence in which Amleth is forced to take part in a sport that appears to be a slightly less violent version of hurling is a masterclass in action filmmaking, with a proto-sliotar flying through the air at high speed like the killer ball from the Phantasm films (I haven't seen a movie character as talented as catching objects thrown at such velocity since John Belushi nonchalantly caught that beer bottle in Animal House). A battle with the undead keeper of a sword will bring older viewers back to Sunday afternoons spent watching Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies.

the northman review

At close to 2.5 hours, The Northman does suffer from a final act in which everything has been so telegraphed that there are no surprises left for the audience, who are left to watch the movie play out its inevitable conclusion. While gripped by the movie's action and mood-building, you may find yourself pining for a little more depth in the character department. Amleth is no more complex than the average Charles Bronson protagonist, and the trouble with adapting centuries old material is that it can't help but feel overly familiar. Elements of this story have cropped up in everything from The Searchers (the idea of rescuing someone who may not wish to be saved) to Revenge of the Sith (a climactic duel on a raging volcano), and of course the aforementioned Shakespeare play.

To see or not to see? Absolutely the former. This is old-school practical filmmaking of the sort we may not get the chance to bask in for much longer, with modern audiences seemingly as content to watch actors prance around in front of a green screen in some Burbank warehouse as to revel in this sort of location heavy, CG-light spectacle. Amleth's story may be a tale as old as time, but while the story beats are familiar, the level of filmmaking on display here is an all too rare treat.

The Northman
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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