Based loosely on the ancient Icelandic Ambales-Saga, Sjón and Robert Eggers’ The Northman tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), whose father (Ethan Hawke) is brutally slain by his usurping brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). In the uproar that follows, Amleth takes flight as Fjölnir seizes the throne and takes Amleth’s mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) to wife. Years later, the now berserker warrior Amleth finally gains an opportunity for revenge, and sneaks his way home to rescue his mother, and claim vengeance for his uncle’s treachery. As is plain from even a scant summary, the tale of Amleth is partly the basis for Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. Yet Eggers is far more interested in combining the myth with other facets of Norse mythology and poem, than with following the trail left by the bard.
Instead, this is a story of cold-hearted revenge. A tale mixed together with a frosting of myth and madness, and told in the style of a Viking poem. The deaths are bloody in the extreme, the plot beset with moments of ludicrousness, and a grandstanding self-acknowledging artistry that screams at the audience to be seen and its importance felt. It’s less Gladiator and more 300 for the arthouse crowd, or Drive with swords; like a campfire tale of bloody glory told snobbishly over cocktails and canapés.
In many ways, The Northman is a staggering and beautiful achievement. Shot with exquisite detail by Jarin Blaschke, Eggers’ constant cinematographic collaborator, and utilizing the stark and wide beauty of the sea and Icelandic landscapes to amazing effect. Similarly, the almost feverish adherence to the absolute minutiae of the slavishly detailed sets, props and costumes, as well as the obscure customs and mores of the Scandinavian, Rus and Pictish peoples is laudable. Eggers’ fine attention to details helps cement the story in a world that never feels less than real, from the wooden beams of the langskips, to the filth under the actors’ fingernails. It’s doubly unfortunate then, that the film feels like a chore to get through.
The honest, inescapable flaw in the piece is that for all the beautiful shots, and the expert camera movements, and moments of choreographed mayhem and madness, it’s all rather tedious. The main problem being that as soon as we swap out the young Amleth (Oscar Novak) for his older counterpart, the character loses any sense of charisma or endearing quality. Skarsgård’s portrayal of the quest is a dull, flat, and soulless one, that often defies all logic, and avoids failure through a mixture of blind luck and fortuitous divine intervention.
It’s a pity as the actors are throwing everything into the piece, both in terms of acting and physical transformation. Skarsgård is physically huge, with barely an ounce of fat on his body, but a musculature that gives him a bestial shape, only exaggerated by his bear-like loping walk, and cold lupine gaze. But it does nothing to make him watchable when he isn’t murdering someone or swinging a sword around. Anya Taylor-Joy does her best to breathe life into a slightly thankless role, as a slave captured during an early assault on a Rus village. But it’s an uphill battle, as her scenes are brief and sporadic, and Skarsgård’s monosyllabic and painfully dry performance just soaks any mirth and fun like a void of mundanity.
While the film isn’t without merit, and is easy enough on the eye, it falls far short of the brilliance of execution seen in The Witch or The Lighthouse proving that while Eggers understands how to perfectly pace the growing tension and thrills of a horror film, when it comes to action and drama, he hasn’t quite succeeded in nailing that difficult third offering.
In cinemas nationwide now