Producers: Lars Knudsen, Mark Huffam, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård and Arnon Milchan Director: Robert Eggers Screenplay: Sjón and Robert Eggers Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Björk, Gustav Lindh, Elliott Rose, Oscar Novak, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Phill Martin, Eldar Skar, Olwen Fouéré, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Ineta Sliuzaite Distributor: Focus Features
Any film by Robert Eggers is guaranteed to be a striking sensory experience, not only drenched in obsessively researched period detail (like “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” this one boasts production design by Craig Lathrop and costumes by Linda Muir) and swirling visuals, again by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (working here in color, but various shades, and on locations in Northern Ireland and Iceland), but in a weird, enveloping sound world courtesy of an exemplary design team and, in this case, a brawling, unsettling score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough. “The Northman” recreates, speculatively but convincingly, a tenth-century Scandinavian world of primitive mysticism and savage brutality. Yet dramatically it leaves something to be desired, especially in its lead performance.
That may be surprising, since it’s based on the same Norse saga that inspired Shakespeare to write “Hamlet,” and Eggers was joined in creating the screenplay by the noted poet Sjón, who collaborated with director Valdimar Jóhannsson on the script for last year’s remarkable “Lamb.” The result is, of course, a revenge story, but one whose prosaic narrative doesn’t match the impact of its poetic visuals and wild sounds.
As the film begins, young Amleth (Oscar Novak), along with his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), welcome his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) back from a war expedition. The wounded king and Amleth together undergo the boy’s strange rite of passage to manhood conducted by Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), howling and crawling about on all hours in a sacred cave. As they emerge, however, the king is attacked and killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also takes Gudrún for his own. He orders Amleth terminated, but the boy escapes, vowing vengeance on his uncle and rescue of his mother.
With the passage of years, Amleth, now in the person of Alexander Skarsgård, has grown into a fearsome member of a band of Vikings slaughtering hapless villagers in the land of Rus. Upon hearing that Fjölnir has been driven from his kingdom into exile in Iceland, he steals aboard a boatload of slaves being shipped there and joins their number. Among his fellow captives is the beautiful sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), with whom he quickly develops a special bond.
The two make it to Fjölnir’s mountain ranch, where they join his stable of slaves. Amleth does not take his revenge at once, instead ingratiating himself with his new master by saving Gunnar (Elliott Rose), his young son by Gudrún, when the boy recklessly involves himself in a vicious game of knattleikr. Meanwhile, with the aid of a witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) he acquires through battle with a dark warrior a magic sword he intends to use against Fjölnir.
His reunion with his mother, however, does not go well. She reveals that she had been stolen and raped by Aurvandill, and was behind Fjölnir’s murder of him; she also tries to seduce Amleth. Enraged, he kills Fjölnir’s older son, the arrogant Thorir (Gustav Lindh), whose boisterous coterie he had earlier murdered, leaving their bodies hanging grotesquely on a wall, and tears out his heart in a calculated act of hatred. But he is forced to surrender when Fjölnir threatens to kill Olga, and suffers terrible punishment before he is freed from his bonds by a flock of ravens.
Amleth and Olga then board a boat to leave Iceland, but when he learns she is pregnant with a child foretold by a Seeress (Björk), he returns to the farm to kill Fjölnir, who will necessarily be a continuing threat. He bloodily dispatches his uncle’s remaining men, along with Gudrún and Gunnar, and then meets Fjölnir himself at the Gates of Hell, where, wielding their swords against the backdrop of a churning volcano, they fight to the death.
The level of violence, here and throughout “The Northman,” is extreme, with beheadings common and many other limbs lost. But the hacking and sawing is all part of our immersion in the cruel, otherworldly society that Eggers has carefully constructed—a vision that also includes such Wagnerian touches as a Valkyrie (Ineta Sliuzaite) riding a horse, like Brünnhilde, in the sky, and obscure prophetic utterances. The result is a visually enthralling evocation of a distant world, blending history and myth in a composite awash in bloodshed and butchery yet strangely intoxicating even in its excesses.
As the above précis indicates, however, the narrative is rather a jumble, stitching together elements of Nordic mythology into an unwieldy structure whose joints the editing of Louise Ford can’t entirely conceal. There’s certainly no hint of the introspection Shakespeare brought to the tale; the through-line may have bumps and byways, but it’s certainly simple (some would say simple-minded), no less so than that of Richard Fleischer’s 1958 “The Vikings.”
The acting is variable. A few of the cast, like Hawke and Bang, show some restraint, and Taylor-Joy is lovely to behold, if glacial, but most play to the rafters, including Dafoe and a ferocious Kidman. The biggest problem, however, is Skarsgård. Though brawny and well-muscled, and able to roar with the best of them, he remains a curiously hollow shell, as devoid of inner life as his Tarzan was a few years back. It’s said that Skarsgård’s been trying to mount a Scandinavian epic like this for years, and undoubtedly brings commitment to what must have been a horribly demanding shoot. But he leaves an emptiness at the center of the film that all of its many virtues can’t compensate for.
But while as a whole “The Northman” doesn’t measure up to its huge ambitions, it is a quite wondrous, if imperfect, expression of an idiosyncratic filmmaker’s obsessive quest to realize a singular vision.