The American director Robert Eggers established himself as a singular cinematic voice with the chilling 17th-century “New England Folktale” The Witch, and followed it up with The Lighthouse, an immersive dream of mermaids and murder. Both movies had an atmosphere you could taste, and made virtues of their relatively low budgets, conjuring expansive worlds from meagre resources.
Enter The Northman, a Viking epic, its budget reportedly in excess of $70m, that comes on like a head-smashing mashup of Beowulf, Hamlet (Eggers and Shakespeare share a Scandinavian legend source) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, told in growly tones that are more Dark Knight than Green Knight. Co-written with Icelandic poet Sjón, and described by Eggers as an attempt to make “the definitive Viking movie”, it’s as ambitious as it is preposterous and, at times, ponderous – filled with garbled epithets about vengeance and fate that are whispered, muttered, or blood-curdlingly yelled. This is a story of children “born of savagery”, in which tormented men spurn happiness to dive into icy waters in search of a fight, while mothers-to-be howl like banshees at the gods; a story with chapters that take place “Years Later”, and that lead us to “The Gates of Hell”. Understatement is not on the menu.
We open in the Orkney/Shetland-adjacent fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey in AD895, Here, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) in front of his young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak), who then witnesses his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), being carried off screaming. “I will avenge you father; I will save you mother; I will kill you Fjölnir!” becomes the battle cry of Amleth, who grows up to become an iron-hearted berserker, played with muscular vulnerability by Alexander Skarsgård, in the land of Rus. An impressive extended shot (one of many) tracks an intoxicated raid on a Slavic village, delivering axes in heads (characters in The Northman are identified by missing parts of their faces) as poultry flap in the background amid Pythonesque mud.
An encounter with a visionary seeress (an elaborately headdressed Björk) sets Amleth on a roundabout course to Iceland, branding himself a slave in order to infiltrate his uncle’s circle. On arrival, he headbutts a man to a pulp while playing a sport that looks like a cross between quidditch and rollerball, thereby winning the approval of his estranged mother, who is now living with Fjölnir. It’s an arrangement she seems to enjoy, although Amleth knows she’s just acting – and there’s a lot of acting in The Northman: some pouty, some scowly, some beefy, some shouty – all delivered in the film’s occasionally ridiculous Nordic-sounding English language (shades of The Last Duel’s accent salads). Amleth also acquires an Arthurian-style blade that can only be unsheathed under foretold circumstances, and teams up with Olga (The Witch’s breakout star, Anya Taylor-Joy), who tells him: “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.”
Eggers has always had an astute eye for that strange crossover between this world and the next, mixing earthy tactility with otherworldly dreams in impressively matter-of-fact fashion. That quality is to the fore in The Northman, which at times reminded me of the living comic-book aesthetic of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, not least when the monochrome noir of night-time exteriors is broken by the golden glow of firelit interiors – a key motif.
Yet for all its visual coups (breathtaking scenery, evocatively captured by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke) and multilayered soundtrack (composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough place us right there in the landscape), there’s something oddly plodding about Amleth’s bloody mission. While the Norns-of-fate narrative may contrive several reversals of fortune and sympathy, there’s little of the genuinely uncanny weirdness that made Eggers’s first two features such a treat. What madness lies herein is not of the north-northwest variety but more in keeping with the bonkers blockbuster spectacle of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.
In last week’s Observer, Eggers spoke of the pressure to deliver “the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result feels uncharacteristically familiar as it marauds toward a final act pitched somewhere between Conan the Barbarian and Anakin’s last moments from Revenge of the Sith, with just a hint of the manly fireside wrestling of Women in Love. The end result could happily play on a double bill with either Zardoz or Thor. Whether that will prove a strength or a weakness with the all-important multiplex audiences remains to be seen.