Shortly after Robert Eggers’ “The Northman,” a hauntingly crazy song about Iceland and fire, the camera plunges into darkness, as if suddenly swallowed up by the Earth. Set in the year 895, on a freezing island in the North Atlantic, and we follow a skinny young Viking prince, Amleth (Oscar Novak), and his shaggy-bearded father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), as that they descend into a fire-lit temple, where the teenage royal is led through a muddy and bloody rite of manhood. Amid much grunts, howls, flutters and farts, Aurvandil predicts his own impending demise and vows revenge on Amleth – an oath sealed in blood and destined to be filled with great geysers of blood and wash.
There are a lot of these grim prophecies and elemental eruptions in “The Northman,” starting with the film’s startling opening shot of a volcano belching smoke, fire, and a voiceover. (I didn’t catch every word, but the volcano might as well say, “Here. Cinema.”) Aurvandil’s fatalistic vision will soon prove correct: after returning from the distant battlefields, the king is brutally killed by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang, “The Place”). Amleth, having witnessed his uncle’s betrayal, barely escapes alive but vows to return and avenge his father, as promised, and save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), whom Fjölnir has taken for wife. And he will return decades later, now played by a hulking, hulking Alexander Skarsgård in full Old Norse berserker mode, who tears himself up in this role as a man – and an actor – seizing his destiny.
If you sense a bit of mimicry in this madness, spot on: the legend of Prince Amleth was the direct inspiration for ‘Hamlet’, though Skarsgård’s mighty warrior also hails from a cinematic pantheon of sufficiently wide to include Conan the Barbarian, Maximus, and Inigo Montoya. If that makes “The Northman” seem derivative, it is: a witchy mash-up of Old Norse mythology, Hollywood pageantry, and proto-Shakespearian revenge epic.
But Skarsgård (also one of the film’s producers) found in Eggers an ideal collaborator, a director sufficiently anchored in the history of cinema to make the difference between inspiration and imitation. Like its memorable period installments “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” albeit on a far more ambitious scale, “The Northman” is both a dazzling display of cinematic craftsmanship and a sly revamp of the genre, a film that likes to respect certain conventions. while turning the others on their artfully severed heads.
And so, while it’s clear enough how Amleth’s story will end, the long arc of its journey takes some unpredictable, even unsettling turns. When we first meet the adult Amleth of Skarsgård, he has joined a band of murderous marauders, clad in wolf skins as they bring a Slavic village to its knees. Eggers, shooting nearly every scene in long, flowing, intricately choreographed takes, gives the action the deliberation and intensity of an ancient ritual. (The hugely immersive cinematography is by Jarin Blaschke, the sober and determined editing by Louise Ford.) This violence is the way of the world, the film suggests, and the atrocities we witness – a burning cabin evokes the conflagrations of Elem in war time. “Come and See” by Klimov – are as unexceptional as they are unbearable.
Amleth, courting and thwarting our sympathies at will, is a very strong link in an endless chain of death. (He’s not alone, judging by an end-credits analysis laden with names like “Hrólfur Split-Lip” and “Thórfinnr Tooth-Gnasher.”) As Amleth continues his latest savage rampage, you can’t not help you wonder how many children he orphans and how many spin-off revenge dramas he sets in motion.
And Skarsgård, a charmer with an undercurrent of estrangement, is perfectly cast as a warrior so numb to carnage that it takes supernatural intervention to remind him of his sworn mission: Fjölnir, Amleth learns, has been dethroned and s fled with Gudrún and his sons. to Iceland. It’s fitting that this news is delivered by a clairvoyant witch played by Iceland’s biggest star, Björk, resplendent in oracular blue lighting and a shell-ringed headdress worthy of Cher.
Björk is one of two top Icelandic talents fielded here. The other is poet and novelist Sjón, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers (and provided the lyrics for Björk’s last major film, 2000s “Dancer in the Dark”). Their involvement speaks to Eggers’ characteristic insistence on verisimilitude, born of an obsessive, research-driven approach to filmmaking that might seem fussy if it weren’t so passionate.
A production and costume designer before turning to directing, Eggers became our great world-builder in extremis: after the frightening Puritan New England of “The Witch” and the lonely maritime outpost of “The Lighthouse”. , it evokes again a nightmarish vision of humanity on the brink.
But despite the meticulousness of “The Northman’s” animal skin and chainmail aesthetic, cinema feels freer, looser and crazier this time around – and not just because the irregular visual record of ancient Viking culture leaves much to the imagination of an artist. (The director’s splendid regular collaborators include production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir.)
Thankfully, Eggers makes movies, not research papers, and his forte is that area where his art-film idiosyncrasies merge with a genuine flair for Hollywood direction. Witness the consciously flowery dialogue, sometimes poetically exacerbated to the point of torture. Witness, too, the landscape-inspired chewing and quasi-Scandinavian accents of Hawke (gone too soon) and especially Kidman, whose performance as the seemingly wise Gudrún turns out to be one of the film’s most delightfully barbed surprises. .
You might recall that Skarsgård and Kidman play a troubled couple in the HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies,” a pairing that gives Amleth and Gudrún’s eventual scenes together even more of a feverish Oedipal charge. But Eggers isn’t in the mood to rush family reunions and reveals, or blow his protagonist’s cover.
Amleth arrives at Fjölnir’s farm as a slave, having stowed away in a boat full of prisoners of war, and he is cunning enough to pass himself off as a hard worker and seemingly family servant for a time. loyal. He and an enslaved ally, Olga (a beautiful Anya Taylor-Joy, teaming up with Eggers again after “The Witch”), bide their time and share their bodies and secrets, laying the groundwork for a campaign of deadly sabotage against Fjolnir’s house.
These schemes, when carried out, are initially attributed to the work of evil spirits. And while Amleth will eventually take his rightful credit as the author of Fjölnir’s Sorrow, the spirit world – the raw material of the Icelandic myths that are the cornerstone of this story – is of supreme importance here. Eggers, plunging headlong into his material, makes no distinction between fantasy and reality, although as a storyteller he is naturally inclined to a strong defense of paganism in all its forms.
Just as “The Witch” critiqued 17th-century Puritan repression with a joyous embrace of a demoniac dancing a naked bonfire, so “The Northman,” with its ominous ravens, bearded witches, and helmeted Valkyries, treats Viking mythology as his own life, breathing, dazzling reality.
You might crave more of this fantasy, perhaps as a distraction from the inexorable death march that Amleth’s journey is destined to become. Eggers, who likes to conjure up elaborate visions only to attack their foundations from within, works hard to shape this journey with a self-critical spirit.
There’s a productive tension at the heart of “The Northman,” a tussle between the epic Hollywood revenge lore it superficially hails from and the cleaner, more subversive dismantling of the simplistic salvage fantasies it wants to be.
The final passages are peppered with surprises that you may or may not see coming, bitter reversals of perspective that complicate – but don’t entirely mitigate – the pleasures of watching a wronged man settle an old score. Bang makes Fjölnir a relentless but not unsympathetic brute. The same goes for Skarsgård, whose career-launching role in “True Blood,” a vampire with Viking roots and named Eric Northman, feels like both a sequel and a warm-up act for this one. this. Amleth may not be a spotless hero, but with a bulging, blood-covered chest and a will to storm the gates of hell, he can still lead you on a trek straight to cinematic Valhalla. .
Evaluation: R, for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity
Operating time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: Starts April 22 in general release