The Northman: mud and guts in brutal Viking power struggle

Thursday, 14th April — By Dan Carrier

The Northman

Alexander Skarsgård in Richard Eggers’ The Northman

THE NORTHMAN
Directed by Richard Eggers
Certificate: 18
☆☆☆

IT was Shakespeare’s source material for Hamlet, so the story of the banished Prince out to seek revenge for the murder of his father and avenge the besmirching of his mother’s virtue is a well-trodden path.

But Robert Eggers’ take on the Danish Prince does away with any navel-gazing anguish. This Prince wants to get his sword out and bury it deep in the guts of anyone he perceives has done him wrong.

King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is the Norseman who travels the raging seas, raping, pillaging and capturing weakly tribes, enslaving them.

He returns to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and son (Oscar Novak) with his human trophies.

We first get wind of skulduggery when brother Fjonir (Claes Bang) makes a dramatic entrance, channelling his inner Alan Rickman / Sheriff of Nottingham, and the suggestion of something between himself and the Queen makes the atmosphere at court thick and greasy.

Fratricide is in the air, and poor Prince Amleth witnesses his father horribly cut down and his head and body separated by his Uncle. Amleth escapes, and vows revenge.

Flash forward many a year, and little Amleth has grown into an absolutely brute of a Viking (Alexander Skarsgård).

He discovers his uncle has been usurped and is living with a reduced tribe. When he learns a collection of slaves he has helped capture are to be sent to Uncle Fjonir, he brands himself with an iron and gets a passage to finally meet his lifelong foe.

While en route, he meets fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the mud, blood and innards that dominate every scene is somewhat tempered by the scent of love in the air.

Eggers has created a brutal, violent and at times mystically weird movie that has grime under its fingernails. It is relentlessly mucky: from the dark skies above the wizened crone (Bjork) and shaman (Willem Dafoe) who pop up to offer the lost and rudderless Amleth advice as to how to wreak his revenge to the gruesome deaths that litter scenes. It has some moments of brilliant production, but also uses CGI in a way to try and persuade the viewer that this story is not really of the same world as we. It’s cartoonish, an attempt to make it feel more myth-like.

Brilliant performances from Skarsgård and Kidman carry things along – but the constant violence, and some of it is properly wince-inducing, will leave you worn out by the end.

This is a brutal, masculine story about power, murder and other unpleasantness. It makes it a hard watch, but one done with panache.

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