For what else can be responsible for the vision, the hubris, the madness, the folly, that inspired mainstream film executives to think it was a great idea to give folk horror genius Robert Eggers $90-odd million in order to go off and realise his blood and thunder, Wagnerian wank fantasy, a brutal, hallucinatory epic reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that drags it back to its pagan Norse roots, a wind-blasted sheep farm at the end of the world standing in for the brooding halls of Elsinore?

What else but a desire to write their names in lightening and enough Peruvian face Drano to drop Charlie Sheen twitching at the gates of Valhalla, tiger blood frothing from his engorged nostrils, could possibly have compelled Universal executives to pony up The Northman’s budget?

And I applaud these heroes, these visionaries, in their drug-induced psychosis, because Eggers’ singular vision of Shakespeare’s Depressed Dane has gifted us the first great film of 2022, a historical revenge drama being mis-sold to us as this year’s Gladiator when it’s far, far closer to a slasher movie version of The Last Of The Mohicans reimagined by Tarkovsky.

On the cusp of manhood, young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses the betrayal and brutal murder of his beloved father King Aurvandill (a mightily bewhiskered Ethan Hawke) by his uncle, Aurvandill’s bastard half-brother, Fjölnir (The Square’s Claes Bang) who longs both for Arvundill’s throne and his wife, Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Narrowly escaping his father’s fate, Amleth flees into exile, swearing to return one day to avenge his father, to save his mother and to kill Fjölnir.

Twenty-odd years later, young Amleth has grown up into, well, a chiselled-from-granite Alexander Skarsgård, and is busy raping and pillaging his way across 10th-century Europe with a bestial band of berserker warriors when a blind Seeress (Björk) and her prophecies reawakens his thirst for vengeance along with a dire warning that he will have to choose between redemptive love and his desire for justice.

Learning that Fjölnir has lost Aurvandill’s kingdom and been reduced to life as a sheep farmer in exile in Iceland, Amleth masquerades as a part of a group of slaves bound for Fjölnir’s desolate homestead, forming an alliance with the proud and beautiful Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a sorceress. Together, they insinuate themselves into Fjölnir’s household, sowing the seeds of destruction…

“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,

Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.”

Titus Andronicus – William Shakespeare.

Co-written with Icelandic poet Sjón, Robert Eggers’ raw, savagely elemental The Northman is a pagan paean to tortured toxic masculinity, brutal revenge and redemptive love. Suffused with a violent, lyrical mysticism, Eggers’ film is like a methed up Heilung video, a Black Metal vision of Götterdämmerung, a stew of blind seers, capering fools, witches, magic swords, watchful ravens (avatars both of Odin and of death), bloodthirsty berserkers, Valhalla-bound Valkyries and naked warriors duelling to the death by the crater of a smouldering volcano, Hell quite literally nipping at their heels.

As the titular Northman, Alexander Skarsgård is a revelation, a hulking brute, streaked in blood and mud, nursing a wounded vulnerability that’s both his damnation and his salvation, creeping the desolate lair of his enemies by night, sowing fear and suspicion, racked by guilt and forbidden desire and an urge to retreat to a simpler, less grey time while Claes Bang’s Fjölnir is more than just a villainous fratricidal monster – in another movie (ideally one directed by Eggers…) he’d be the antiheroic protagonist, a Macbeth-like usurper ultimately undone not by ambition but by familial love – his eventual showdown with Skarsgård less a crowd pleasing duel than a dance of death. As the enigmatic Olga, Anya Taylor-Joy lends her one dimensional character an ethereal grace and beauty while Kidman here proves again what great work she can do with very little, her Queen at once a cruel, matricidal schemer and a victim of toxic misogyny, her eventual reuniting with Skarsgård warring for your sympathies as much as it may creep you out.

Largely suggesting the worst excesses of sexual assault and brutality that underpin the characters’ brutal nomadic lives of raiding, rape and pillaging, The Northman is still unflinchingly brutal in it’s depiction of Viking ‘civilisation’, a grubby, vicious reimagining of a largely Wagnerian romanticised world, a thrilling, brooding, doom-laden vision of violence that, like the volcano smouldering at it’s heart, could explode into chaos at any moment. It may not make a penny, but Eggers has gifted us the first great film of 2022.

Movie Review: The Northman
5.0Overall Score
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