Robert Eggers follow-up to The Witch and The Lighthouse with the third in his 'the' trilogy, a bloody, grizzled tale of Viking revenge...
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy
Running time: 140 mins
It’s always struck me as anomalous that, across the muddy, bloody wide-spanning fields of the historical epic genre, there’s never been a definitive film focusing on the Viking era. Every iconic historical period seems to have a singular defining film. Ancient Rome? Spartacus. Napoleonic Wars? Waterloo. Russian Revolution? Doctor Zhivago. But, despite Kirk Douglas’ best efforts and Antonia Banderas’ worst, the films set in what could be described as the Viking era have all fallen short in either scope or execution.
But with the success of TV shows like Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Scandinavian comedy Norsemen, it’s fair to say that the Vikings are getting their moment in the cultural sun. Step forward Robert Eggers, the American director who established his eerie, elaborate and otherworldly style with The Witch in 2015, cementing it with The Lighthouse four years later, who set it upon himself to make “the definitive Viking movie”. With a budget north of $70million and a cast that includes Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Björk, I think there’s a strong case for saying he might just have done it.
Firstly, the world Eggers has created is visceral. He’s created an atmosphere of shadow, mud, bone and blood that you can almost taste. It’s a grizzly world of barbarity and chaos that is often uncomfortable to watch. Although our story, characters and (most) place settings are fictional, what little is known about the late ninth century suggests that the level is discomfort is wholly appropriate, as facial appendages are cut off, heads are caved in and throats are slit with terrifying regularity.
The Northman overcomes a relatively routine base plot and a plodding third act to excel in dragging you into a story that’s as gripping as it is uncomfortable
We open on the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey in 895, where King Aurvandil (Hawke) is returning home after a lengthy conquest. Bedraggled and bearing a potentially fatal wound, he is greeted by his wife Queen Gudrún (Kidman) and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). After preparing his son for manhood and future rule in a beautifully shot, animalistic cave ceremony, he is murdered at the hands of his half-brother Fjölnir, who seeks to claim the crown, the kingdom and Queen Gudrún for himself, causing young Amleth to flee for his life.
The script, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón, is laconic, stripping dialogue down to the bare bones. Lines about fate, revenge and destiny are muttered, chanted and screamed by a now adult Amleth (Skarsgård) who is on, narratively at least, a fairly routine quest to get revenge on the man who killed his father, stole his mother and claimed his rightful place on the throne.
Eggers commands committed, full-throated performances from an impressive cast, which also includes Anya Taylor-Joy, his breakout star from The Witch. Combined with his sumptuous eye for the aesthetic and a knack for portraying a domain that exists somewhere between this world and the next, The Northman overcomes a relatively routine base plot and a plodding third act to excel in dragging you into a story that’s as gripping as it is uncomfortable. Only time and repeated viewings will tell whether this emerges as the definitive Viking film but, for now, it’s certainly a contender.
Did you know? The Valkyrie wears a helmet with a bronze swan as decoration. In Norse Mythology Valkyries would assume the shape of swans.
The Northman is now showing in cinemas
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