The Northman: Gruesome Viking epic bustles with intelligence and invention

No dull moments in Robert Eggers’ third film, though the extreme violence will not be for everyone

The Northman
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Director: Robert Eggers
Cert: 16
Genre: Drama
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins

It would not have been surprising if creative and commercial tensions had torn this sleet-walloped Viking epic into bloody ribbons. Robert Eggers comes to his third feature after stimulating adventurous taste buds with The Witch and The Lighthouse.

Few such arthouse directors get to expand their aesthetic with a budget over twice that of the season's Michael Bay film. Yet Eggers really has been given $90 million (€83 million) – Bay's current, LA-annihilating Ambulance cost about $40 million (€37 million) – and The Northman, filmed largely in Ireland, is every bit as crunchy, awkward and unsettling as his first two films.

You couldn’t quite argue that “every cent is on the screen”. A few computer-generated shots feel thin. We are dealing with a cast of hundreds rather than thousands. But few recent films on this scale have bustled with such intelligence and invention. They may not be making them like this for much longer.

Dreadful revenge

Those entering with no prior knowledge will find a familiar story rapidly folding around them. We begin with young Prince Amleth welcoming home his warrior king father (an uncharacteristically burly Ethan Hawke) from the usual Viking slaughters. All seems comfortable enough, but intrigue is brewing. Amleth watches horrified as his father’s brother (Claes Bang) murders the boy’s dad and shacks up with his apparently unwilling mother (Nicole Kidman). He flees for foreign climes, grows to be a man, and, now in the mountainous form of Alexander Skarsgård, plots his dreadful revenge.


Can you see what it is yet? Working with the Icelandic writer Sjón, Eggers has adapted his screenplay from Saxo Grammaticus's 13th-century Amleth, a source for Hamlet, and, though the procrastination here is mostly involuntary, echoes of Shakespeare resound throughout the story. Willem Dafoe could hardly be better cast as a bawdy jester who, after fulfilling his duties as a variation on Lear's Fool, gets dug up as wormy version of Yorick. Kidman, her mellifluousness betraying a steely edge, grabs the opportunity for an informal Gertrude with indecent eagerness. Skarsgård gets to stir himself in the odd soliloquy. The fug of incest and corruption suits an already ailing dynasty.

The film’s early shape is, however, 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 at his captors’ deranged public games. Rather than chariot racing, he plays a sport that has almost as much in common with rollerball as it does with hurling. Players smash opponents in the face with sticks as they seek to transport a ball to a rude post.

All this is good clean homicidal fun. Before that, charting Amleth's time with a party of berserkers, Eggers deals in less jokey mayhem that conjures up uncomfortable reminders of current outrages. Using lengthy single takes, transporting us past barely glimpsed horrors, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Oscar-nominated for The Lighthouse, follows the party inland to a Slavic village where Amleth participates in what we would now adjudge a war crime. The Northman does not sell its empathy cheaply.

Richness and weirdness

A few centuries of exposure to the formal theatrical tragedies have prepared us for the story’s inevitable narrative arcs. But the richness of Eggers’s historical ventriloquism ensures there is never a dull moment. No previous film has, we are reliably informed, been so accurate in its recreation of Norse life. Even those unconcerned with such things will be won over by the richness and weirdness of the cluttered fabric. This is a world in which the mystical and the supernatural are woven in with the everyday. Björk is here as a seeress who knows more than she should. Branches of the sacred tree Yggdrasil link the protagonist with past and future. The final conflagration connects with nature at its most diabolically unforgiving.

Perhaps Eggers has lost some of the horrible intimacy we savoured in his earlier work. But he offers us compensation in scope, intensity and pure bloody ferocity. We need hardly note that the extreme violence will not be for everyone. Never fear. The new Downton Abbey movie will be along in a moment.

Opens on April 15th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist