Review: The Northman

Though not trailblazing in any significant way, Robert Eggers’ first two features successfully perverted forms that tend to be thought of as inviolable. The Witch was a horror movie that implied a deep distrust of the devices that characterize the genre, while The Lighthouse was a rollicking tall tale that peeled away the surface comedy and explored the unremarked motivations that make tall tales subliminally interesting. Connecting both was a convincing, obsessive verisimilitude with regard to time and place that nevertheless provided its own special appeal even if it sometimes got in the way of understanding. Reportedly, much of the dialogue of The Witch, which took place in New England in the 1630s, was taken directly from contemporary documents.

Eggers is now a certified bankable director, and his latest is a conventional historical action movie with impeccable production design (Eggers’ strong point, since that’s what he did before directing) and a story that, aside from being based on the legend that inspired Hamlet and co-written by the Icelandic poet Sjon, wouldn’t have drawn much attention had it been directed by anyone who’s had a hand in the MCU. As revenge sagas go it’s literal-minded and predictable, so there’s little subtext for Eggers to fiddle with. The boy-prince Amleth of an Icelandic king (Ethan Hawke) is on hand when his uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), murders the king and kidnaps the queen, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and just barely escapes death himself by fleeing into the wilderness and escaping to the European continent. He attaches himself to a tribe that resorts to raping and pillaging as a means of survival—which isn’t to say they feel guilty about the carnage or, for that matter, don’t enjoy it, but in any case, it’s clear that Amleth does not care for the material spoils and is merely biding his time. Eventually, Amleth, now played with formidable muscles by Alexander Skarsgard, returns to Iceland as a slave captured in battle to work on a farm owned by his uncle, a situation he has carefully planned out. 

The only element of the story that could be deemed perverse is Amleth’s careful subterfuge in demonstrating unswerving loyalty to Fjolnir, which pits him against his cousin, Thorir (Gustav Lindh), thus pressuring him to double down on a masquerade that disorients his moral compass but not his bloody resolve. He himself commits unspeakable acts of violence in secret so as to undermine his uncle’s power, and while these scenes are gory enough to maintain Eggers’ reputation for sick mischief, they don’t add anything distinctive to the story or its emotional contours. Even when Amleth discovers that his mother is and was perfectly happy to aid her new husband’s treachery and evil intentions, there’s no Hamlet-like reckoning with his own humanity. The only corrective to Amleth’s bloodthirsty designs is his love for the fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a side show that’s forgettable because you’ve seen it so many times before. 

In English and Old Norse. Opens Jan. 20 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Northman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Focus Features LLC

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