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The Northman

Released 2022. Director: Robert Eggers

THE NORTHMAN IS A PULSE-POUNDING VIKING REVENGE SAGA ankle deep in mud, an awful lot of mud. It’s aggressive, savage, angry and mad, as a prince meets his destiny by way of skewering, decapitation, disembowelment and a sliced nose. Bearded men with long hair who haven’t bathed in weeks grunt and growl, lunging at each other with swords, axes or muscular bare hands. There’s also an outdoor sporting event featuring wooden bats and players end up whacked unconscious, mortally injured or dead.

I’m trying to paint a picture to tell (or warn) you that The Northman is an ultra-violent rampage. If you have delicate stomach lining I suggest you don’t eat before watching. On the other hand, it is an absorbing and masterfully shot medieval fantasy epic of honour, justice and vengeance.

Based on Norse legends, the story is set in the 10th century and somewhere in the north Atlantic, King Aurvandil returns from battle in triumph but his glory is short-lived. Ambushed by his traitorous brother Fjolnir, the king is pinned with a shower of arrows and with a swift carve of a sword, his severed head hits the muddy ground.

This is witnessed by nine-year-old Prince Amleth, who manages to evade capture and escape in a rowboat with his life and limbs intact. "I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjolnir!" The impetus of the entire plot spelled out succinctly.

Cut to a different boat some twenty years later and Amleth is now a hunky fighter with bulging biceps and eyes that reflect hate and anger, back to kill his uncle who not only assassinated his father but married his mother. Sounds familiar? The legend of Amleth was what inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

If you’ve seen The Witch and The Lighthouse, you’ll remember director Robert Eggers has a distinctive visual palette in whipping up an imaginative and feverishly unsettling atmosphere of foreboding. He moulds characters with their environment, subjecting them to a greater force, often psychological, even supernatural. In The Northman, Amleth’s quest for justice is entwined with a grander cosmic design beyond his conscious control.

Alexander Skarsgard cuts a striking figure, not only physically hulking as if sharing the same DNA as Thor, but he also brings a degree of emotional depth not normally expected from a role like this in an action-packed blood fest. Driven to the brink of madness, Amleth finds his humanity in his protective instincts and affection for slave girl Olga even as he submits to a greater spiritual force in his gory savagery.

The rest of the cast props up the tension and contributes generously to the rage, woe and blood spill, including Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandil, Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrun, Claes Bang as Fjolnir, Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga and Bjork as the Seeress prophesising Amleth’s fate.

The world that Eggers builds in The Northman is soaked in stark brutality, both in its natural landscape and harsh survival of power and subjugation. The introduction to the adult Amleth, who has fallen in with a pillaging tribe, is a particularly stunning sequence. The camera climbs alongside Amleth as he scales a village wall and continues without a cut as it pans across a wild and barbaric attack, while plunderers hack and slash their way through terrified and defenceless families. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography also incorporates hallucinatory and graphic elements when Amleth tips across to the psychic realm. Close your eyes and the ominous sounding score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough summons a hair-raising carnage of horror in your mind.

Only his third movie, and the first to be financed by a major studio, Robert Eggers shows even with a blockbuster budget and intervention from the money men (the studio dictating changes and final cut), he has managed to maintain his visionary streak and kept a tight control of his signature style. The mark of a rising auteur.


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