Written by the Icelandic Poet Sjón and Robert Eggers, and directed by Eggers, “The Northman” is a Viking Epic adapted from the tale that directly inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, or “The Lion King” for that matter, you’ll recognize the story structure well enough, but the way Eggers realizes those familiar elements is efficiently brutal and unjudgmental of the past’s morality. Set roughly around the year 900, we begin the tale with the return of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) to his home in Northern Ireland after a successful military campaign. Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) is slow to join the festivities with the family and fellow villagers, but he does after awhile, bringing a brooding demeanor to the gathering. After some time establishing Prince Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgård) life before the inevitable tragedy, we’re introduced to his Mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and King Aurvandil’s Fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe) before The King and Heimir indoctrinate young Amleth into Manhood through some strange and trippy long-held traditions. Afterwards Fjölnir and his men turn heel and betray the king, killing him in front of Amleth as he quickly scrambles towards freedom. While rowing away from the shores of his home, Amleth recites the mantra that will fuel him for the rest of the film, “I Will Avenge You, Father. I Will Save You, Mother. I Will Kill You, Fjölnir.” Now that’s character motivation!
Fast forward into Prince Amleth’s adulthood and we’re met by the hulking beast of a man that the scared boy has transformed into. Amleth and a band of similarly gargantuan Viking berserkers then attack a village with ruthless abandon, ironically orphaning many more children in the long wake of Amleth’s own tragedy. Violence begets violence after all. However, putting our own lens of modern morality aside, Amleth is the hero of this tale, so we get no whitewashing or “prettying up” of the story at hand, and for that I am thankful. Letting the story breath and evolve on it’s own merits without bringing all of our baggage to the tale heavily imbues the film with an air of authority on it’s own world, on the traditions of the characters we see, and with the mythmaking at hand. Eventually our Viking Wolf-Bear (There’s a lot of growling, snarling, and involved roleplaying with the Vikings) hears word that his uncle Fjölnir, now titled “The Brotherless”, has lost his throne to another Warlord and is now living on a small farmstead in Iceland with Amleth’s mother and a small troupe of slaves to tend to the land. With that news fresh in his mind, Amleth sneaks into Iceland under the guise as one of the slaves being transported to Fjölnir’s land. While there he’s quickly found out by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who decides to help him in his quest for vengeance. Eventually they make a plan and slowly begin to turn the farmstead against themselves in occasionally hyper-violent fashion.
While “The Lighthouse” may still be Eggers’ best efforts so far in his career, “The Northman” still delivers us an epic worth telling. The score, cinematography, and performances all converge on Eggers’ style which is becoming more recognizable with each new film. Like a sculptor, or Ernest Hemingway’s literary style; as I see it, Eggers’ removes the unnecessary and strips down the story and performances to their core attributes without over embellishing. The story is simple, revenge. The way it’s handled here though is perfectly realized mythmaking. In this world, mystics and magic exist, though they’re similarly muted like the depiction of magic in “The Lord of The Rings” to some extent. Valkyries and the undead alike serve their mythmaking purposes to great effect, there’s even a mythical sword called the Nightblade that can only be drawn at night, or at the Gates of Hel. Once Amleth begins to unravel the sanctity, and sanity, of Fjölnir’s Icelandic peace, the film revels in it’s horrific imagery as well as it’s commitment to savagery through heroism.
If you’re looking for original films that aren’t a superhero sequel or solely as a vehicle for big name stars, this film should sate those who seek something different. In fact, there are several films in theaters right now that I highly encourage you to check out. There’s the increasingly popular “Everything Everywhere All at Once” by the Daniels in perhaps the most thoroughly satisfying Multiverse-oriented film this year, with apologies to Sam Raimi. Michael Bay also has a great new film in “Ambulance” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Not to mention Nic Cage’s Action-Buddy film with Pedro Pascal in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” where Nicolas Cage plays an exaggerated version of himself. If any of those premises caught your interest I have full reviews of all those films over at Films Fatale and the links to each are listed below. You might want to catch them before Dr. Strange annihilates the Box Office this Friday, oh and check out my review of that Multiverse Madness over at Films Fatale over the weekend as well!
Final Score: 1 Hungry Nightblade
*I’ve also been writing film reviews over at Films Fatale, check them out here: