A relentless warrior exacts bloody revenge on those who have wronged him – and anyone else that gets in the way – in The Northman, an intense spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Robert Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse. Stuffed with rich thematic material, pitch-black humor, and a guttural you-are-there atmosphere, this one packs a truly memorable punch.
The Northman opens with Viking prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak, who was also a young Bruce Wayne in The Batman) celebrating the return of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), after a lengthy raid. Mortally wounded, Aurvandill has little interest in reuniting with wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman); instead he takes his son on a vision quest with the aid of jester-shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe).
But before the King can keel over naturally, his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) seizes the throne for himself and takes Gudrún as his own wife. Amleth is reported dead, but instead rows out into the sea vowing vengeance on his uncle.
Years later, we meet Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on a raid of his own, now a relentless, animalistic warrior with only violence on his mind. The Northman doesn’t shy away from Viking brutality – a house full of children is set ablaze in one of the film’s early scenes – but Skarsgård’s Amleth looks on with dispassionate detachment; while a willing participant, he takes little joy in the world that surrounds him.
When Amleth overhears that the slaves obtained during the latest raid will be taken to Iceland and sold to Fjölnir – now a former King whose land was seized by another – he disguises himself among them and begins to plot his revenge, with the aid of fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).
While The Northman is certainly epic in scope, these first two acts of the movie depicting Amleth’s innocent youth and sudden transformation into a single-minded warrior are essentially condensed into two single sequences. It feels like studio meddling – stars Hawke and Dafoe are barely in the movie – and might even reduce a visionary epic into a plot-driven revenge film. But the clarity of vision behind The Northman shines through the choppy early presentation.
The majority of the film takes place at Fjölnir’s estate in rural Iceland, gorgeously filmed on location, and it’s here where The Northman truly finds its footing. Amleth is unwilling to betray his ordained fate, and instead waits for the right time to exact his revenge; in the meantime, he relentlessly torments his uncle and those around him with the brutal focus of a slasher movie villain.
The Northman becomes something of a perverse horror movie during its second half, and the script (by Eggers and Sjón, who also wrote the Icelandic-set Lamb) slowly peels away the layers behind the violent reality Amleth has created for himself. By the end of the film, we see things in a different perspective, and while we understand Amleth’s quest for revenge, we no longer share his desire for it.
Like Eggers’ previous features, and especially The Witch, one of The Northman’s greatest strengths is its utterly convincing presentation. Despite the presence of Hollywood stars and some occasionally ripe emoting, the reality of the world of the film is never betrayed; coated in grime and dredged through the mud, The Northman is the real-deal Viking experience compared to glossy TV counterparts like The Last Kingdom or Vikings.
While ambitious in scope, The Northman never loses sight of its cycle-of-violence message, and the paradox of living in a warrior society where single-minded intent conquers more nuanced ambition.
“You must choose between love of your kin and hate for your enemy,” the seers tell Amleth. While his ultimate fate has been destined by the gods, he can still choose the path he takes there.
The Northman is now playing in Prague cinemas; it releases in the United States on April 22.