Viking tale 'The Northman' is Robert Eggers' best film yet

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

Director Robert Eggers brings the Viking epic back to the big screen in a big, bold and bloody way with “The Northman,” starring Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard in a new retelling of the myth of Amleth, the Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Eggers, who made a splash with his first two films, “The Witch,” an intimate family drama about the horrors of pilgrims and patriarchy, and “The Lighthouse,” a black-and-white absurdist tale about two lighthouse keepers driving each other mad, is known for his historical research and attention to detail, and his meticulous approach to filmmaking has not changed despite the much larger scale, scope and budget of “The Northman.” Eggers assembled a team of Viking researchers, translators and archaeologists to help him craft what might be the most historically accurate Viking epic yet.

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And is it ever epic, not only in terms of budget and bloodshed, but in the way that Eggers treats the material. In tackling the ancient saga of Amleth, Eggers collaborated with Icelandic poet Sjon on the screenplay to craft a tale of fate and fury from the oral tradition of Viking lore. “The Northman” is heavy-duty myth straight from the muck and the mud, told in song and ancient pagan ritual and hallucinatory cosmic visions. It is a story of the body, both strong and fragile, bodies as weapons, currency and symbols, and the importance of the bloodline, in death and in regenerating life, offering threads of connection between people and generations.

Alexander Skarsgard stars in "The Northman." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Young Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses the assassination of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who kidnaps his mother (Nicole Kidman) for his bride. Amleth makes a desperate escape to the sea, repeating a mantra that seals his fate: “avenge father, save mother, kill Fjolnir.” In the Kingdom of Rus, Amleth grows into a wild berserker warrior (Skarsgard), pillaging villages and slashing throats clad in bear skins and little else. An opportunity presents itself, and he steals away to Fjolnir’s farm in Iceland disguised as an enslaved man in order to exact his revenge. On the boat, he meets a young Slavic maiden, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a witch who will assist in his journey to meet his fate.

Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke create striking images informed by Eggers’ deep research. Scenes of pagan worship are fascinating and disturbing; long, unbroken takes of brutal violence are mesmerizing for their complex choreography. Dim, gray, almost black-and-white cinematography is offset with color used in shocking and delightful ways. Whether it’s a red cape adorning a small prince’s shoulders, a bright green river, or the glowing embers of fire, color is as thoughtfully utilized as anything else on screen.

The use of sprawling, wide landscape shots set against soaring hills and crimson sunrises lend cinematic and thematic weight to the film. These shots are a signifier that “The Northman” is a throwback to the adventure epics of classical Hollywood, but they also offer texture to the setting of the film, which is situated in a real place with natural elements at play (the film was shot in Ireland and Iceland). There is a real heft to this craft, which Eggers wields like a carefully swung blade.

Alexander Skarsgard, left, and Anya Taylor-Joy star in "The Northman." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

But while the images are striking, it’s the sound of “The Northman” that will rattle you to your bones and makes this a full sensory cinematic experience, enveloping the audience in the rumblings of ancient incantations that seem to come from deep within the earth, the feral war screams of Skarsgard, the spells Olga incants and the remarkable score, by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.

The performances are largely physical, the characters speaking in a kind of ancient poetry wrought in animal metaphor and proclamation. It’s a story of fate, and wrestling with one’s own preordained destiny, but the way that the characters embrace fate as they embrace life and death is exceptionally moving. These people live closer to everything in this world, closer to the earth, animals, each other, to life and death and destiny. Death is not defeat but divinity.

“The Northman” embraces it all too. It is melodrama, and murder and mayhem and witchcraft; it’s everything Robert Eggers does best on the biggest scale, and it’s his best film yet.

‘THE NORTHMAN’

3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity)

Running time: 2:16