The Northman Is Hellbent on Vengeance... Sadly Though, He's in No Rush
The thing about Hamlet – you know, the William Shakespeare one – is that it’s kind of long. This would be a problem if it were not a play about indecision, and uncertainty, and the unknowability of others, and all the things that make human existence so confusing and, for dramatic purposes, interesting. If the Prince of Denmark had made his mind up to avenge his father and kill his uncle at the end of act one – and kept it that way, without question or crisis – there’d have been considerably less to pick over for the following 400 or so years.
American director Robert Eggers’ new film, The Northman, the extravagant follow-up to his stylish and unhinged 2019 psychological drama The Lighthouse and his eye-catching 2015 debut horror The Witch, is based on the story of Prince Amleth, the Norse legend from which Shakespeare’s play is thought to be derived. Eggers, in a screenplay he co-wrote with the Icelandic poet Sjón, imagines a prince – played by a brawny, grim-faced Alexander Skarsgård – who is plagued by many things: a dead father, a murderous uncle, an incestuous mother. Doubt, however, is not among them.
In the early scenes of the fantasy-historical epic, which opens today in the UK, the young Amleth (Oscar Novak), observes his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kill his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), after which the young prince is granted plenty of time to run off into the woods and hide under a tree. He makes his way to a beach, where he finds a boat, and as he rows out into the cold, grey sea with tears in his eyes, he chants a mantra: “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!” That’s his line, and by god is he sticking to it.
As the film unfolds, we watch adult Amleth plot his revenge: first, by schooling himself in the art of fighting and howling with a group of wolfskin-wearing berserkers, then by disguising himself as a slave and infiltrating the Icelandic farm where his uncle now lives with Amleth’s mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and Fjölnir’s two sons (one of them Gudrún’s – conceived not as unwillingly as Amleth might like to hope). The only potential distraction from Amleth’s purpose is a mysterious and beautiful fellow slave called Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), though she may well have tricks of her own to aid him in his quest.
The Northman, at least in the version that we will see, is not a film about thinking. It’s possible that Eggers’ earlier cut – which according to a recent New Yorker profile of the director was simplified following notes from studio execs – was more so. The workings – or malfunctions – of the mind are something that Eggers has frequently sought to represent in his work, usually in striking visual sequences: Robert Pattinson’s deranged lighthouse keeper’s fishy sexual fantasies in The Lighthouse, the satanic goat that haunts Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. The Northman, though, is instead a film about waiting, and suffering, and then, when the time is right, chopping up as many people as you can.
Which is not entirely a bad thing. As with Eggers’ previous films, the visuals for The Northman – for which he has once again teamed up with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke – are breathtaking. The prolonged battle sequences are visceral and exciting and very, very grisly; the camera swoops and looms in near-impossible configurations around the stark Irish and Northern Irish landscapes in which most of the film was shot. Once again there are striking visual tableaux that stay seared on your retinas for days: Björk as a seeress with white seashells hanging over her blackened eye sockets; model Ineta Sliuzaite as a Valkyrie, looking like she’s riding her death-horse straight out of a late-90s cover of The Face; a pig-tailed Willem Defoe – whose impish physicality Eggers’ exploited so well in The Lighthouse – as Heimir the Fool, the proto-Yorick, incanting around a bonfire.
The problem, though, is that these tableaux offer the only punctuation in a film that otherwise sticks steadfastly, and sometimes a little tediously, to its course. The points of intrigue are not psychological, but come rather from wondering what artful assemblage of severed limbs we’re going to be presented with next. It’s like lurking on Jeffrey Dahmer’s Pinterest board. We don’t have to worry what any character's feelings or intentions are because they’re happy to tell us, usually in language that is heavy on the fantasy-speak: “My earth magic will stoke the flames of your sword!” “You are still a beast cloaked in man-flesh!” etc. All of which means that the actors – and the cast is a staggeringly good one – are, in a strange way, not given nearly enough to do.
In fact, the greatest tragedy here is not the Dane, but the Swede. Having been a well-regarded actor for decades now, The Northman is Alexander Skarsgård’s entry into the big leagues: a hugely hyped, heftily budgeted blockbuster with the potential to make him into a megastar. And, if the early reviews are anything to go by, it probably will. But is it showing him to his best advantage? Skarsgård is an actor with rock-solid abs, yes, who can – and does – growl and glower with the best of them, but he’s also got range, and charm, and humor, and a savage eye for nuance (as apathetic technocrat, Lukas Mattson, in Succession he is, frankly, exquisite) which he’s given little opportunity to deploy here.
None of which is going to stop The Northman galloping on, like a Valkyrie towards Valhalla, to box-office glory. Critics are falling over themselves to pull ever more stars down from the firmament to pin onto Eggers’ lapels, and there’s no reason to think audiences won’t want to do the same. The Northman is unquestionably a spectacle of lavish and mesmerizing proportions that seems to know exactly what it’s doing and where it’s going: to be a truly compelling drama, however, it could do with a few more wrong turns.
From: Esquire UK