Based on the Norse myth that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Robert Eggers’ third film is a rollocking, rampaging Viking romp. The Northman is Eggers’ most ambitious project to date, but for all its howling spectacle and ultra-violent elemental machismo it is also his least successful.
In 9th century Scandinavia, Aurvandil, Raven King of the Jutes (Ethan Hawke) has returned home after a season of warfare, his Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) waiting patiently for him, and his son Amleth, Prince of Jutland, (Oscar Novak) growing quickly. Meanwhile, Aurvandil’s bastard half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) waits in the wings, plotting the Raven King’s betrayal which he performs in spectacular fashion, skewering Aurvandil with spears before lopping off his head. Amleth escapes by the skin of his teeth, fleeing the kingdom. By the time we see him next, he has grown into a raging, howling wolf of a man, pillaging his way across Eastern Europe and plotting his vengeance against Fjölnir.
The Northman’s source narrative may have inspired Hamlet but this tale’s natural bedfellow is undoubtedly Macbeth; indeed Eggers’ film is strikingly similar to Justin Kurzel’s visceral 2015 retelling of the Scottish play. And just as the madness of ambition is what inspired the Scottish warrior to overthrow his King, it’s the madness of rage that drives this Danish prince to exact vengeance.
The Northman’s opening act is everything we’ve come to expect from the director of The Witch and The Lighthouse: intensely operatic and tonally pitch black. Amleth’s surreal, hallucinogenic coming of age ritual is almost parodic in its ultra masculinity, seeing father and son howl like wolves before drinking a psychedelic soup prepared by Willem Dafoe’s rictus-grinning Heimir the Fool. The first act’s intensity begins at ten and scales up from there, culminating in the adult Amleth raiding a Slavic village with his pack of equally deranged wolf men. It’s a bravura sequence shot in a single take with all the pillaging, hacking, slashing and screaming that a Viking could ask for. Then we’re on to Iceland after Amleth hears that Fjölnir himself has been deposed and is now a sheep farmer.
Unfortunately, this is where The Northman begins to falter. The intense momentum of its first half hour is constrained by Amleth finding Fjölnir so early on. When Amleth arrives, having befriended the beautiful Slav witch Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), he vows to torment Fjölnir before finally killing him and freeing his mother. But this leads to something of a slump in the second act where Amleth moodily waits until the time is right to strike (sound familiar?). Olga, too, is sadly underwritten: her motivation to help Amleth after he sacked her village and killed her kinsmen is never really explored and so she ultimately functions as a foil to his quest. And when the narrative does pick up again in third act, it’s undercut by an entirely predictable revelation.
It might seem a churlish complaint – after all it’s hardly the myth’s fault that its narrative components should be familiar- but it’s still a shame that the film doesn’t find a more interesting way to present the old tale’s twists and turns. That said, when The Northman does kick in to final gear boy does it go for it. What is most satisfying about the film is its full and non-ironic commitment to a ludicrously operatic masculinity. There is surely no other way to end such a piece than the way it does: atop an erupting volcano, silhouetted naked figures beating the everloving Hel out of each other. It might not be subtle, it might not even be particularly deep, but it sure is spectacular.