The Northman

The Northman ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Director: Robert Eggers. Cast: Alexander SkarsgårdNicole KidmanClaes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke

“The Northman” is based on the 10th century Nordic legend, which eventually became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But don’t expect anyone mulling over a skull here. This is a pulpy, gory, violent revenge story, which shares more with Conan the Barbarian , Gladiator, Braveheart and Game of Thrones than anything the Bard might have written.

That should not surprise those who’s familiar with director Robert Eggers’s previous films, from the fascinating (and rather gruesome) “The Witch”(2015) to that descent to madness that was “The Lighthouse”, both of which were just as unsettling and intense as “The Northman” is.

The film starts with a rather long prologue, during which I struggled a bit to find my bearings. We are introduced to Amleth, the 9 year old boy, son of a Viking King (played by an unrecognisable Ethan Hawk). After witnessing his father being slaughtered by his uncle and barely escaping with his own life, Amleth swears.

Fast forward a few years and the film finally gets going as we find Amleth, now grown into a bundle of muscles (courtesy of Alexander Skarsgård and his bulging abs), grunting and screaming as he and his tribes attack another Viking village somewhere in the North.

This is possibly one of the most impressive sequences in the whole film: a one-take wonder (clearly the preferred style of film-making for Eggers), which seems to go on forever and immerses the audience in a middle of a violent spree across the village with extreme realism.

It’s an ambitious shot which, like the rest of the film wants to show the not just the chaos of the attack, but the uncompromising brutality of the Vikings too.

Interestingly the film is “only” rated 15, because whenever actually look closely you rarely see the most gruesome details. There’s a lot of suggestive sound off-camera, silhouetted body shapes being knifed and slaughtered and people killed relentlessly left and right, but the camera rarely lingers on.

It is possibly one of the most authentic depiction of the Viking world we’ve ever seen on screen. “I did try my damnedest to do everything as historically accurate as possible.” Eggers said in a recent interview. And his works clearly shows off.

Right next to all this stark realism, Eggers also fills the film with several hallucinatory scenes, either the result of psychedelic drugs taken by the Vikings during various ceremonies and rituals or feverish nightmares dreamt by the some of the characters.

This is where the film goes almost abstract, aided by sinister lighting and a nerve-racking soundtrack blasting through the speakers.

If I have to be honest, I didn’t think the mix between the two styles always work for me and often I found those sequences took me from the film. They did however give a little breathing space from the all the blood.

All realism and accuracy aside, the story itself is pretty simple and the characters are fairly sketchy and two-dimensional. The only two main women in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) and Nicole Kidman, do their best with the little they’re given. This is for better or worse (definitely worse) a world that belongs to men.

Kidman in particular felt a bit miscast here: her clean, glamorous and porcelain-like beauty felt a bit out of place among all the dirty, muddy grunginess), and yet despite this she commanded the screen every second she appeared. Watch out for her astonishing and revealing monologue in the third act, but also for a brief appearance by Bjork (she came out of her acting retirement just for this) and another short speech by Willem Dafoe as a jester… and later as a… erm… head.

To conclude, while on a technical level this is an impressive film, I found it a little bit empty. Also, for a story that is born out of a passionate declaration of revenge, “The Northman” isn’t actually very emotionally engaging.

I couldn’t help thinking back at Leonardo di Caprio in the Revenant and drawing parallels between his character and Skarsgård’s Amleth: two similar depictions, both pushing themselves to the limits and both looking for revenge. But the truth is that beyond his transformative appearance, all his grunts and roars, Skarsgård is really not that interesting to watch for the 2 hours and 17 minutes.

Coming out of my local cinema where I watched this I heard somebody commenting to his friends: “Wow, what a f**ked up film”. While it might not be the most highbrow or complex review, I must confess I do share that feeling a little bit.

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