The Northman starts and ends at the base of a rumbling volcano, and there couldn’t be a more fitting location to bookend this third film from Robert Eggers. This gruesome Norse adventure is something truly elemental, rumbling with fire and fury as bestial men enact brutal vengeance upon one another, the sort of epic that only the history-mad Eggers could make, one that feels semi-miraculous in that it even got funded in the first place, an auteur blockbuster that is far too rare these days.
Co-writing with Icelandic poet Sjon – who also brought Scandi folklore to disturbing life last year with A24 horror Lamb – Eggers here loosely adapts the same Norse saga that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As a child, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) looks set to inherit his father Aurvandil’s (Ethan Hawke, clearly having the time of his life) cold, rugged kingdom in the north of Norway, before his treacherous uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders Aurvandil and takes Amleth’s mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) for his wife.
After a narrow escape across the North Atlantic, we’re reintroduced to Amleth as an adult (now played by Alexander Skarsgard), making a living as a raider and slaver in the land of the Rus (Eggers introduces us to each new location via title cards in Norse runic script, a very fun little touch). As embodied by a terrifyingly massive Skarsgard, the grown Amleth is part bear, part wolf, part machine, and very little man, tearing through fights with grim determination as he hacks off heads and bites out throats. In Eggers’s hands the battles are incredible, long takes and magnificent set design immersing you in this ancient, pagan world whilst the violence is brutish unsparing. Eggers and Sjon make no attempt to update the morals of the time – this is Viking life as Vikings would have experienced it, and it’s all the more compelling for that fact.
Reminded of his pledge for vengeance against his uncle by a seeress (played by Bjork), Amleth disguises himself as a slave and stows away on a ship to Iceland, where Fjolnir has been exiled to by Norway’s new king Harald, on the way recruiting Slavic witch Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) to his cause. From here, The Northman is a slow burn revenge tale, shot through with mystical interventions as Amleth calls upon the might and cunning of Odin to ensure his success.
As you’d expect from Eggers by now, The Northman looks simply sensational. Of course, Iceland lends itself naturally to epic vistas and mythic showdowns, with deep focus wide shots from Jarin Blaschke highlighting the island’s almost alien grandeur during the day, and bathing the screen in silvery moonlight by night. Eggers’s commitment to historical detail is already maybe his defining trait, and this massive step up in terms of budget allows him to bring Viking Iceland to visceral, often grotesque, life. From slave quarters you can practically smell through the screen to the meticulously researched Viking pastimes – a sort of ultra-violent proto-hockey match serves as the film’s best set-piece – every inch of Amleth’s world feels lived and died in.
That’s not to say that Eggers is entirely committed to pure realism though. The old gods rather unambiguously exist and intervene in The Northman, while fantasy, reality, and hallucinations bleed into one another in strange rituals, this unearthly tone bolstered by eerie music and sound design. It’s in these moments of unreality that Skarsgard is allowed to add greater depth to his performance, a sense of wonder evident beneath his feral shell – the scene in which he whips himself up into a berserker rage is riveting.
Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, is more Machiavellian but still brings fire to her role, commanding favours from the gods with shrieked prayers, while Kidman makes the most of her surprisingly layered part. What could have been a relatively thankless task becomes instead a genuinely frightening and disturbing piece of performance, adding a sickly Oedipal charge to proceedings through both Kidman and Skarsgard’s chemistry on screen and the clever meta frisson of the casting – the duo played husband and wife on HBO’s Big Little Lies. As you’d want from Eggers, the man who brought us a silver-tongued goat in The Witch and freaky mermaid sex in The Lighthouse, The Northman is unafraid to get weird. Even with the studio interference that inevitably comes with a $70 million budget, this is still an Eggers film through and through, right down to the talismanic roles for previous collaborators Willem Dafoe, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Ineson, not to mention the tongue-in-cheek Hamlet references and fart jokes.
Sprawling as it is, The Northman may lack the purity of focus and atmosphere that made The Witch and, particularly, The Lighthouse so mesmerising, but the trade-off is almost entirely worth it. This is exactly what I want more blockbusters to be; stylish, adult, and done as practically as possible, raining mud, blood, and lava down upon an audience until all you can do is bask in its mania as two hulking nude men fight to the death at the Gates of Hel.