"The Northman" is positively volcanic
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Björk. Directed and co-written by Robert Eggers. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 136 minutes. 14A
Viking epic “The Northman” opens with a bang: a volcano angrily belches fire and lava into the night sky. The year is 895 AD in a craggy corner of the desolate North Atlantic.
You might well ask yourself, as I did: How is writer/director Robert Eggers going to top this scene in the rest of this violent fable? Just sit back and gape in awe as the answer unfolds in a payback tale for the ages.
Stripping the royal murder-and-vengeance theme of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” back to its Icelandic and Scandinavian folklore roots, “The Northman” remains positively volcanic even when it’s a human being doing the exploding.
The human in question, described more accurately in the film as “a beast cloaked in man-flesh,” is the furious Viking Prince Amleth. Played by Sweden’s Alexander Skarsgård, so ripped he looks like he bench pressed Volvos to prepare for the role.
Amleth is out to avenge the murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). The warrior monarch fell to the arrows and sword of his duplicitous brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who then seized the throne and also the king’s wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth witnessed this treachery as a boy (played by Oscar Novak), barely escaping with his own life. He has plotted to exact revenge and gain his rightful place on the throne ever since.
Fear no spoilers, even if you haven’t seen “Hamlet.” This information is all in the trailers and Amleth mutters the plot basics like a mantra: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
This is surprisingly literal mainstream filmmaking by American auteur Eggers, who co-wrote the story with Icelandic poet Sjón. In his much-lauded previous features “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers made virtue of narratives that whispered their intent and mostly cloaked their mayhem.
Not much is hidden this time, although cinematographer Jarin Blaschke once again views Eggers’ vision through a dark lens. Much of the film is shrouded in smoke, mist and murk, with the gloom infrequently broken by glimpses of the sun or by fires.
Craig Lathrop’s production design is also vintage Eggers, which is to say heavily researched and recreated to be as historically accurate as possible. The clothing is of hand-stitched furs, wool and leather. The Viking longboats and longhouse gathering places creak from rough-hewed wood.
The weapons seem almost prehistoric. To the pounding drums of the doom-laden score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, Amleth brings the heat in multiple ways — blade, axe, spear, club and even his head — as he and his band of Viking “berserkers,” clad in wolf and bear skins, wreak havoc upon the forces of Fjölnir, a Putin-esque figure who isn’t going to back down easily, if at all.
This makes for bleak if mesmeric viewing, even in a rare moment of recreation. A field game that seems to start out as an early version of cricket turns into something resembling a savage mob beating.
In the midst of all this testosteronal tussling, the performances of three women stand out.
Kidman doesn’t get much screen time, but her character establishes herself as no mere kidnap victim. She brings to mind a line from “Hamlet”: “God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.”
Anya Taylor-Joy, made famous by Eggers’ “The Witch,” arrives near the 40-minute mark as Olga, no friend of Fjölnir. She sides with Amleth and also fosters the closest thing to romance and family life this film can muster. She helps gives Skarsgård’s character much more humanity than he might otherwise possess; the innate intelligence of both actors shines through.
Then there’s Björk, the Icelandic pop star and actor, barely glimpsed as the mystical Seeress in her first big-screen feature role in 17 years. Majestically accoutred in a headdress fashioned out of feathers and arrowheads that partially covers her eyes, she seems like she’s in a Viking version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” video as she dispenses both prophecy and warning to Amleth.
Give this character her own movie! Or at least a pop video directed by Robert Eggers.
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)