You would never accuse Robert Eggers of being just another filmmaker.
He took the world to notice with his feature debut in 2015, period horror film ‘The Witch’, which he followed up in 2019 with the psychological ordeal that was ‘The Lighthouse’.
Now comes his film Viking.
In his director’s statement for “The Northman” — a largely mind-blowing and oft-offbeat film hitting US theaters this week — Eggers talks about wanting to make “THE Viking movie. The definitive Viking movie.”
It’s quite a turnaround for him. To hear Eggers tell it, he wasn’t really pushed into action by his wife, who was convinced that if he made an effort, he, like her, would be interested in Icelandic sagas and Viking lore. Apparently he was more or less “meh” about it. However, that changed after the pair traveled to Iceland in 2015, where they found themselves imagining “lone 10th-century figures on horseback” against the region’s near-incredible landscapes.
This new passion eventually led him to Alexander Skarsgård, the former “True Blood” actor who worked for years to star in and produce a Viking film.
Skarsgård puts on an impressive performance in a film that is both beautiful and brutal. Its opening moments, in which thunder crashes around a mountain and a gravelly-voiced man addresses the Norse god Odin, are guttural and powerful and prove to be a microcosm of “The Northman”.
Based on the legend of Amleth, “The Northman” shares major rhythms with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
While Skarsgård portrays Prince Amleth as male, it begins around AD 900 with a younger version played by Oscar Novak, who was also recently seen as young Bruce Wayne in “The Batman”. Amleth is delighted to have his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke, “Moonknight”), return for him and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”), to the fictional island kingdom of Hrafnsey, located somewhere around the Orkney and Shetland Islands, near the top of present-day Great Britain.
Fearing that he has little time left on this earth, Aurvandil concludes that he must prepare Amleth for what lies ahead – including the duty to avenge his father’s future death. And so we get a wild ritual shared by the two and orchestrated by the court jester and precious adviser to the king, Heimir the madman (Willem Dafoe, one of the stars of Eggers’ “lighthouse”), serving as the figure here. of shaman.
Soon Aurvandil is killed, not by opposing forces but by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who takes Hrafnsey – and Gudrún – for himself. He also orders his men to kill Amleth, but the boy is able to flee the area.
When we catch up with Amleth 20 years later, he is attacking Slavic villages with other Viking Berserkers. During a brutal stop, he meets a seer (Björk), who reminds him of his destiny and his responsibility for revenge. (Björk – the brilliant singer-songwriter from Iceland, who hasn’t been seen on screen since 2005’s “Drawing Restraint 9”, is so musically enchanting with the delivery of her lyrics that you can’t completely absorb them .)
Having learned that his uncle has lost the kingdom to a greater force and now runs a farm in Iceland, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and boards a ship bound for the region. A real-life slave, Olga of the Birch Forest (‘The Witch’ star Anya Taylor-Joy), knows he’s an impostor but remains silent, the two forming a bond that will last long after they arrive at the farm. .
There, Amleth proves more capable than most slaves, impressing Fjölnir and Gudrún and granting him certain privileges and responsibilities in the process. All the while, he plans to avenge his father and save his mother and is ready to unleash a new hellish reality on his unsuspecting uncle.
Eggers co-wrote “The Northman” with Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist, and screenwriter Sjón (“Lamb”), and they crafted a story that, while relatively simple and familiar, is rich in detail. They infused it with supernatural touches that Eggers said would be considered realistic for the characters. (Well, maybe, but we’re not quibbling.)
And many of its details come to life thanks in large part to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who has also worked on other Eggers features. Iceland, in particular, looks amazing and dramatic – and not quite in the way that a 4K video of the country you might post on YouTube to show off your TV – but those are the elaborate tracking shots of the film which are the most impressive. The aforementioned raid on Olga’s village clearly required high-level planning, coordination, and execution, and it’s beautifully captured.
On camera, Skarsgård (“The Legend of Tarzan”) – who clearly put on muscle mass for the role and appears to have been in divine form – is a force. The singularly focused Amleth isn’t the most dynamic character, but the actor keeps you reasonably invested in his fate.
Kidman’s role is on the small side – albeit larger than fellow high-profile actors Hawke and Dafoe – but when the ‘Big Little Lies’ costars finally share the screen, deep in the film, we get some punchy minutes. .
Bang, a Danish actor who played key roles in two 2020 arthouse films about art, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and “The Last Vermeer,” is pretty shrewd in his portrayal of Fjölnir. The fact that the character isn’t your typical villain is also credit to Eggers and Sjón.
One of the disappointments of “The Northman” is that the scribes didn’t make sure Taylor-Joy’s role wasn’t meatier. The talented ‘Emma’ and ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ star gets the most out of some key scenes, but the movie just would have been stronger with more of her.
Some may also be disappointed with the film’s pacing; it has what could be considered an odd pace, and for all its action, it can be slow at times.
That said, “The Northman” is more accessible than “The Lighthouse” — and possibly “The Witch” as well — and the hope here is that it gains a large audience.
When: April 22.
Note : R for strong bloody violence, sexual content and nudity.
Duration: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Stars (out of four): 3.5.