It wouldn’t have been surprising if creative and commercial tensions tore this Viking epic to bloody shreds. Robert Eggers arrives at his third feature film after having stimulated adventurous taste buds with The Sorceress and The Lighthouse.
Few art house directors manage to expand their aesthetic on a budget twice that of the season’s Michael Bay film. Still, Eggers did get $90m (€83m) – Bay’s current LA-wrecking Ambulance costs around $40m (€37m) – and The Northman, filmed in big part in Ireland, is just as crisp, awkward and disturbing as his first two films.
You couldn’t quite say “every penny is on screen”. Some computer-generated shots look thin. We are dealing with a cast of hundreds rather than thousands. But few recent films on this scale have been driven by such intelligence and invention. They may not do them like this for a long time.
Those who enter without prior knowledge will find a familiar story rapidly unfolding around them. We start with young Prince Amleth welcoming home his warrior-king father (an unusually burly Ethan Hawke) from the usual Viking slaughter. Everything seems quite comfortable, but the plot is brewing. Amleth watches in horror as his father’s brother (Claes Bang) murders the boy’s father and sleeps with his seemingly reluctant mother (Nicole Kidman). He flees to foreign climes, becomes a man and, now in the mountainous form of Alexander Skarsgård, plots his terrible revenge.
Can you see what it is again? Working with the Icelandic writer Sjón, Eggers adapted his 13th-century scenario of Amleth from Saxo Grammaticus, a source for Hamlet, and, although the procrastination here is mostly unintentional, echoes of Shakespeare echo throughout. the story. Willem Dafoe could hardly be better cast as a debauched jester who, after performing his duties as a variation of Lear’s Fool, gets dug up as a vermiform version of Yorick. Kidman, his softness betraying a steely edge, seized the opportunity for an informal Gertrude with indecent eagerness. Skarsgård manages to stir in the strange soliloquy. Incest and corruption suit an already sick dynasty.
The initial form of the film, however, is closer to that of a more violent Ben-Hur or a less campy Conan the Barbarian. Like Judah Ben-Hur, Amleth spends time behind an oar before returning as a slave to succeed in the deranged public games of his captors. Rather than chariot racing, he plays a sport that has almost as much in common with rollerball as with hurling. Players smash their opponents in the face with sticks as they look to carry a ball towards a rough post.
This is all good clean homicidal fun. Before that, retracing Amleth’s time with a band of berserkers, Eggers deals with less pleasant mayhem that conjures up uncomfortable reminders of current outrages. Using unique long takes, transporting us beyond barely glimpsed horrors, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Oscar-nominated for The Lighthouse, follows the party inland to a village Slavic where Amleth participates in what we would now call a war crime. The Northman doesn’t sell his empathy on the cheap.
Wealth and strangeness
A few centuries of exposure to formal theatrical tragedies have prepared us for the inevitable story arcs of history. But Eggers’ rich historical ventriloquism ensures there’s never a dull moment. No previous film has, we are reliably informed, been so accurate in its recreation of Norse life. Even those who don’t care about such things will be won over by the richness and weirdness of the cluttered fabric. It is a world where the mystical and the supernatural mingle on a daily basis. Björk is here as a clairvoyant who knows more than she should. The branches of the sacred Yggdrasil tree connect the protagonist to the past and the future. The final conflagration connects with nature at its most devilishly ruthless.
Perhaps Eggers has lost some of the awful intimacy we relished in his early work. But it offers us compensation in scale, intensity and sheer bloody ferocity. Needless to say, extreme violence won’t be for everyone. Never scared. The new Downton Abbey movie will arrive in a moment.
Opening April 15