Review: ‘The Northman’ (conquer your fate)

Vikings and vvitches and Vahalla, oh my.

In 914 AD, a young Amleth (Oscar Novak) bears witness to the betrayal of all he knows. His father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is slaughtered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who claims his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his own. Narrowly escaping the odds against him, he is accepted by a neighboring Viking tribe, growing powerful under a personal vow of vengeance. When the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) learns from a fallen seeress (Björk) his opportunity is at hand, the warrior disguises himself as a slave to fulfill his destiny, befriending Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) to aid him in his dire task. Biding his time to ensure a vengeance true to his word, revelations come to light as Amleth’s relationship with Olga grows, leaving him torn between what he is sworn to do and the potential rewards of abandoning his oath.

Writer / director Robert Eggers has grand ideas, a visual style, and a healthy preoccupation with legend, morality tales, and mysticism. His freshman film The VVitch (also starring Anya Taylor-Joy) was well-received but met with mixed audience reaction, similar to his followup The Lighthouse (also starring Willem Dafoe who appears in The Northman as Heimir The Fool). With his latest film steeped in the old legends that also inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet — and some would add Disney’s The Lion King — Eggers soaks his production in destiny, ritual, and testosterone. Channeling a modern Conan the Barbarian mixed with bits of “Game of Thrones” and The 13th Warrior (which also draws from Beowulf), The Northman might be the director’s most mainstream film to date, but can it find an audience eager for its spectacle?

Iceland is the backdrop for the old world of The Northman in the same way New Zealand became Middle-Earth for The Lord of the Rings; the sweeping expanse and wide spaces make this intimate epic feel larger and more affecting than it should and serves the story well. Some scenes appear almost black and white beneath gray overcast skies until interrupted by a flicker of firelight or a splash of blood, but not to the extreme of stylized films like 300 or Sin City. Eggers keeps everything grounded and practical as safely allowed. Alexander Skarsgård has stepped up his game, both in acting and training to look the part; it’s an amusing coincidence it also feels like a potential backstory for his character Erik Northman on HBO’s “True Blood” series. The director has crafted an immersive experience that is decidedly adult, telling a classic tale as well as it can be told with a flare for the dramatic and death as a constant companion. Earning its running time of just over two hours, it boasts a single moment of amusement and a lifetime of satisfaction.

Half of the top-listed cast makes only a brief appearances, although the way Willem Dafoe’s character is given extra screen time is as ghastly as it is wonderful. Nicole Kidman lends her craft to bring another matriarch to life, exceeding her similar role in Aquaman. Anya Taylor-Joy is ethereal as always, playing Olga as more aware than everyone thinks and smart enough to hide it from her enemies. The Northman’s world is built upon men ruling and women wanting… unless they’re the cunning kind of woman who learn to elevate their station, the queens and spiritualists who survive those seated upon thrones. Beastly warriors, assassinated kings, and soothsaying seers look down upon a brutal landscape where the common person could be free one moment and conquered the next with little to say in how their fate will play out.

With outlandish war preparations and coming-of-age scenes ready-made for after-hour Renaissance festival drum circles, Eggers goes all-in with his low-fantasy Dungeons & Dragons settings. The spectacle of it makes for great storytelling, but the plot hinges on the idea that “this is not the way,” punctuated with a father’s admission that one doesn’t know each day whether they’ll awaken as a king or a slave, and it’s best to be prepared for both. Because Robert Eggers has since announced his desire to tackle Nosferatu, sadly, we must wait.

The Northman is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity, and the nose knows.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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