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TRUE NORTH

The Northman (15)

Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers, Sjón

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy

Review: RJ Bland

Robert Eggers' debut feature The Witch was arguably the best horror film of 2016. That's an impressive feat when you consider that in the same year, Train to Busan, The Invitation, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Under the Shadow were also released. What makes it even more remarkable - and kind of depressing - is that Eggers was 31 when he made it (if you've not directed a masterpiece by your early thirties, hang your head in shame!) Not only did it make genre fans sit up and take notice of a super talented young film-maker, it achieved a fortune at the box office too (it made back its $4m budget ten times over). Egger's sophomore effort was another period piece, The Lighthouse, which although still operating within the realm of horror, was more of an intoxicating psychological drama truth be told. It also happened to be bloody excellent too. His next project was announced shortly afterwards. Titled The Northman, we were told to expect a bloody, brutal Viking revenge epic. Another step away from horror perhaps but worth checking out nevertheless...

 

Based on the Icelandic medieval Legend of Amleth (which was also the inspiration for Shakespeare's Hamlet), The Northman tells the story of a young Viking Prince (called Amleth funnily enough) who witnesses the death of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his Uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Fjolnir also claims Amleth's mum (Nicole Kidman) as his new wife and orders the would-be-king to be killed. However, the plucky young Amleth escapes, vowing to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his Uncle. Years later, the emotionally paralysed Amleth has developed into a big hulking warrior, who lives as part of a raiding party; killing, pillaging and capturing slaves. However, when he hears that his Uncle's Kingdom has been absorbed by the King of Norway and that he now resides in Iceland with Amleth's mother, the hate filled Prince sets out to dish out some payback...

 

The plot of The Northman may not stray too far from your typical historial revenge flick. There are no Shyamalan twists or turns to be had here. Some may find the linear structure a little disappointing. But the way that Eggers and co-writer Sjon tell this story is ultimately what makes this different from pretty much every other comparable film. Style over substance is not an accusation in the case of The Northman, it is a compliment. 'I was so exhausted, I wanted to cry', Alexander Skarsgard said of his time on set and you can see why. The attention to detail and historical authenticity that Eggers strives for are unrivalled and the result is an immersive, violent, magical and beautiful looking Viking saga.

 

The popularity of historical TV dramas such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom has laid the groundwork for features like this and there is an expected level of violence that comes with the territory. The Northman is just as brutal as you'd ever want too. Heads are chopped off, people are disembowelled, burnt alive and sacrificed. In one scene, a guy gets his nose cut off which somehow seems worse than all of the aforementioned atrocities. It's a long way from the subtlety of The Witch but then we're operating in a different universe here. Like his previous features though, Eggers finds a way of easing in the surreal and fantastical into his otherwise grimly sober material. Valkyries, Valhalla, Odin, Uppsala – it's all in there and realised in visionary manner. Norse mythology at its hallucinatory finest. There is the odd scene where this borders on the absurd (the farting/burping rite of passage comes to mind) but for the most part the oddness doesn't outstay its welcome.

 

Although the world itself is fleshed out in grand fashion, the same cannot be said for the characters themselves. It's clear that The Northman has no intention of being Gladiator and eschews sentimentality and emotional arcs for gritty nihilism. Whilst it undoubtedly feels more bona fide, the fact remains that we are never really too invested in Amleth's quest. Skarsgard doesn't hold back and delivers a powerful performance but he's as frosty as the Icelandic landscape he spends most of the film in and hard to relate to. The young Amleth hints at a vulnerability beneath the ferocity of his adult self, but it's buried so deep it's hardly detectable. Anya Taylor Joy and Nicole Kidman are a little more volatile but their characters still feel a little hard to pin down. The former in particular seems to suffer from a part that feels a little underwritten.

 

The running time and inevitability of it all does mean that the film does feel long. However, for the most part, the spectacle is enough to carry us along with it. The emotional core may feel light and the narrative nothing new, but The Northman is never dull. It's bold, stylish and gloriously barbaric in bursts. Everything you'd expect from a Dark Ages epic. It's a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

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The Northman is a testament to what Eggers can do with a big budget and further enhances his reputation as one of the most impressive Directors out there. A formulaic plot is a small price to pay for a brutally immersive viewing experience.