“I will avenge you, Father; I will save you, Mother; I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
These muttered, repeated words by Viking prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak as a young boy, and a hulking, angry Alexander Skarsgård as an adult) are essentially summarising Robert Eggers‘ narrative intentions in The Northman, an ugly, brutal, at-times Shakespearean drama.
Witnessing the death of his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), at the hand of his uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), Amleth’s aforementioned tripartite vow consumes his mentality as he flees his island village and vows revenge.
Revenge and violence has clearly been all the damaged Amleth has raised himself on, so much so that he’s momentarily lost his way and indulged in a wolf-pack of fellow-minded ferals who pillage villages throughout Europe. This life of murder (and, evidently by Skarsgård’s shredded frame, consistent crossfit) means he’s in need of a realignment, and thanks to an otherwordly Seeress (Björk, the Icelandic singer returning to feature films after 2000’s controversial Dancer in the Dark), he’s reminded of his vow and sets a course to save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
Given Eggers is such an unconventional storyteller, it makes sense that The Northman indulges in a fever-dream temperament over the course of its 137 minute running time. Though it’s arguably his most accessible title compared to The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers still injects a sense of fantasy and outer-realm placement to assure his enthusiasts that his sense of accessibility doesn’t necessarily equate to mainstream normality.
It’s his most straightforward narrative to date, with a void of ambiguity or thematics to ponder over, and his sense of story balance with physical set-pieces working in a lush harmony. Similarly, Eggers has opted out of entire historical accuracy by allowing his characters to speak in English with vague Scandinavian inflections; Kidman’s first line of dialogue leaning into slight camp territory that her wild performance maintains throughout.
As mythic and as violent as it proves to be, The Northman remains quite a human story at its heart though, with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga of the Birch Forest, a sorceress who becomes an ally and, later, love interest to Amleth, injecting much needed humanity and kindness into a story dripping with sweat and unpleasantness. Their bond spurs Amleth on in a manner that forces him to reinterpret the relationships and dynamics he believed he knew, primarily with his mother and his uncle, characters that are painted in much more complicated strokes than initially believed.
Utilising his healthiest budget to date, Eggers should be commended on seeing through his interpretation of such a story, with the elements that speak to the masses (revenge, love, redemption) infused with his unique sensibility that may catch general viewers off guard, but will sure tickle those that have come to expect nothing less from a filmmaker unafraid to be bold and gorgeously weird.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Northman is now screening in Australian theatres.