The gritty and gruesome tale that inspired the gritty and gruesome Shakespeare tragedy.
The Scandinavian legend Amleth is the one who inspired William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet.” The story of how a king was murdered by his treacherous brother, and the son would one day avenge him. “The Northman,” Robert Egger’s third feature after “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” uses the Icelandic version of the tale in some of the darkest and most profound aspects ever told and presented.
But Eggers is not alone; “Lamb” writer Sjon also joins him in the screenplay, and they both adapt to the Icelandic settings at a perfect R-rating. They both aren’t afraid to guide the A-list cast in dangerous territories, and they show us the kind of filmmaking that independent studios are able to wisely spend their money on.
This one is distributed by Focus Features, and it has the kind of courage that keeps it at speed with some of the best blockbusters. And I’m talking about the smartest and most entertaining; not the ones who care only about money or assume they know what they’re getting themselves into. “The Northman” cares less about money, and more about how the story inspired Shakespeare’s work. It knows what it’s getting itself into.
Alexander Skarsgard stars Amleth, who would become a Viking warrior, Ethan Hawke is his murdered father King Aurvandill, Nicole Kidman is his mother Queen Gudrun, Claes Bang is his evil uncle Fjölnir the Brotherless, Anya Taylor-Joy is the sorceress Olga of the Birch Forest, Bjork is the prophet Seeress, and Willem Dafoe is the jester and priest known as Heimir the Fool.
The story has Amleth escaping from his killers, and finds himself in a Viking horde pillaging villages in Northern Europe. He then smuggle himself on a slave ship heading back to his home village in Iceland, where he plans to avenge his father, and kill his uncle.
Both “Hamlet” and “Amleth” stories are about violence and the evils within. Kids are murdered, women are murdered, and men are murdered, some of them suffer from carnage more gruesome than others. But “The Northman” is also fascinated in how the actors are able to merge within their roles, and how the atmosphere is able to bring us into this chaotic story. There’s a scene that nearly hints at incest, there’s a scene when Heimir tells the young Amleth (Oscar Novak) and Aurvandill to act like dogs transcending into men by burping or farting, there’s a scene with a heart being pulled out, and there’s a scene when the youngster bites a bad guy’s nose off. Pretty extreme.
Skarsgard’s portrayal of Amleth ranks with Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” and Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur,” because of how he adapts to the dialogue and fights without looking like the macho blockbuster star. There seems to be a distinction and whether its presented as a blockbuster or an independent feature, “The Northman” knows how to attract movie-goers with its complexity and nature.
Taylor-Joy, who previously worked with Eggers on “The Witch” (and that’s how I knew her name, BTW), plays Olga with humanity and emotions, thus ranking with her best performances. She also has the kind of connection with Skarsgard that cuts back on the cliches and more on the nature of the story.
And the rest of the supporting actors know how to act in an Icelandic story without trying to run away with the picture on account of their names. Hawke acts tough as the king, Bang is profound as the uncle, Kidman is devilish as the mother, Dafoe has his moments of insanity, and Bjork has a creepy cameo as the prophet who looks like she has no eyes with her eye lids painted black.
You know you’re in for a dazzling independent epic, when the film opens with a volcano and a distinctive voice drawing us into its true colors. Especially the way cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (an Eggers collaborator) makes it look great. It may be released by Focus Features, but it feels more like an A24 entry, because of how the studios takes their genres to new heights. I guess that independent studio, released under Universal Studios wants to live up to their expectations.
This is one of the year’s best films.
In Theaters This Friday