Robert Eggers has created the Scandi noir to end all Scandi noirs: an atavistic revenge horror based on the Old Norse legend of Amleth, a young nobleman intent on bloody payback against the uncle who murdered his father and married his widowed mother; it’s the tale that inspired Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Among its many acts of hysterical violence, this film chops off the first syllable of Hamlet’s indecision; it hacks away the Elizabethan melancholy and existential hesitation that Shakespeare grafted on to his anguished hero, and turns him into a single-minded warrior who is very buff and roars with neck tendons flaring like peacock feathers. He is a loincloth-wearing, wolf’s-head-sporting guy who frankly isn’t that fussed about being or not being … or only in the sense that the former applies to him and the latter to his enemies.
This drama very much takes Amleth away from the thespian green room and simplifies the story along Lion King lines (no Hakuna Matata though). Yet it also does away with the imbecility that the original Amleth feigned, which Shakespeare then transformed into an ambiguous ordeal of madness. “Amleth” means “stupid”, but Amleth is not that.
Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, who as a boy witnessed the murder of his father King Aurvandil, played by Ethan Hawke. The culprits were henchmen in the pay of his saturnine, duplicitous uncle Fjölnir, played by Claes Bang. The murderer then marries Aurvandil’s queen Gudrún, played with a willowy yet steely and gimlet-eyed presence by Nicole Kidman. The first time we see Gudrún is when young Amleth (Oscar Novak) is told off by his mother for scampering into her bedroom while she is dressing: Eggers and co-screenwriter Sjön playfully encourage us to suspect that there will be some time in the future when Amleth will have a nakedly intimate encounter with his mother. So it proves – and Kidman gets an absolute showstopper of a scene.
Little Amleth escapes and grows to hunky manhood obsessed with his brutal destiny: the story unfolds in a stark vista of unremitting violence, periodically switching from plangent colour to a kind of bleak monochrome for its various shroomy visions and prophetic confrontations. We have the traditional robust Viking banqueting scene at the very beginning, at which Fjölnir is irritated by Aurvandil’s capering jester Heimir, played by Willem Dafoe, who in death is to get a very disturbing Yorick-skull moment. Björk plays a witchy seer (from Scotland perhaps), taunting Amleth with his fate.
Amleth returns from his exile in “the land of Rus” as a slave in the household of Fjölnir, there falling in love with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and his vengeance is not simply a matter of execution; he is to be a lightning-rod for the forces of terrible retribution that boom across the heavens. Along the way, the slaves are permitted some Midsommar-style frolicking, but must participate in a rough game which can only be described as Australian Rules Quidditch.
The Northman is a horribly violent, nihilistic and chaotic story about the endless cycle of violence, the choice between loving your friends and hating your enemies – which turns out to be no choice at all, and the thread of fate down which masculinity’s delicious toxin drips. It’s entirely outrageous, with some epic visions of the flaring cosmos. I couldn’t look away.