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THE NORTHMAN  ****

Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole kidman, Claes Bang.
Action, US, 136 minutes, certificate 15.


Released in the UK in cinemas April 15th by Universal.

 

How Robert Eggers goes from making a black and white film about two men going mad in a lighthouse to an ambitious big-budget (90 million dollars) action movie for a major studio is a mystery for the ages. It is a mystery that we should be thankful for. With his third feature Eggers further proves his reputation as one of the most exciting directors out there. One who can be said to have a singular vision for his movies. From THE VVITCH’s folk horror to the psychological/cosmic madness of THE LIGHTHOUSE to this full-blooded historical action epic of revenge, Eggers seems reluctant to simply repeat what he knows, flitting across history to share his vision, which now seems ready to be unleashed on the mainstream.

 

Loosely inspired by the historical legend of Amleth, who in turn inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, THE NORTHMAN takes the bare bones of this figure to tell its own tale of savage revenge. Witnessing the murder of his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) by his own half brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) the young Amleth swears revenge in his father’s name and to rescue his mother and regain the kingdom. Years later and now dedicated to a life of berserker violence, the wandering Amleth finally decides to return home to enact his revenge after an unearthly encounter with a witch like figure, played by a mesmerising Bjork, reminds him of his destiny. With the help of Olga, a Slavic woman seemingly in touch with the spirits of the Earth, a plan is hatched which results in bloody mayhem and savage retribution.

 

Marketed as GLADIATOR for a new generation, THE NORTHMAN is in actuality a very different beast. It may start off with the base for an epic adventure with a young man journeying far and wide but it contracts in on itself. The big battle set pieces that would be saved for the second half of a film is instead presented early on here only for things to downsize when Amleth discovers the true nature of his obsession is very different from what he thought. What follows instead comes across like a mixture of folk horror and slasher film. What it unmistakably is however is a Robert Eggers film. Set mainly against the vast mountainous landscape of Iceland we are back once again in an unforgiving landscape that holds many unearthly elements that mould and prey on the sanity of its inhabitants. Either lit by the primal elements of fire or moonlight, Amleth’s night-time wanderings threaten to break the spirits and bones of his sworn enemies in a style that perfectly complements and expands upon Eggers debut feature.

 

Just as much a horror film as a historical epic, this is full blooded big budget film making that seems all too rare these days. It is also one of the most distinctive films of its type in a very long time. Full of otherworldly visions, Amleth’s family tree being one stunning example and his acquisition of a nocturnal sword (it makes sense when you see it, I promise) being another to its hellish and bloody climax, THE NORTHMAN is the kind of film that deserves to be celebrated by everyone with its wildly entertaining mix of meticulously researched historical detail and wild genre defying swings that pay off in many ways.

 

Iain MacLeod.

 

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