Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Taylor-Joy
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins
If you have not seen the Viking action/drama “The Northman” yet, then you are missing out on a classic work of historical fiction by director Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse,” “The Witch”). Headlined by a superb performance from Alexander Skarsgard, “The Northman” is based upon a Scandinavian folktale written by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-c. 1220), which served to later influence William Shakespeare’s writing of “Hamlet.” Eggers’s glorious cinematic take on the ancient story of Amleth is violent to the core with an emphasis on historical detail and Viking mythology.
The story, which is a tad slow occasionally, begins in the year AD 895 when King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his island kingdom of Hrafnsey. A celebration, organized by his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) is held to honor his triumphant return. However, King Aurvandil, who bears a terrible wound, refrains from too much revelry as he is focused on preparing young Amleth to be his successor. As such, they participate in an ancient ritual overseen by the king’s jester, Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe).
During the morning after the king’s return, he is betrayed by his brother, Fjolnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang, “The Square”) and Amleth must flee the island to stay alive, but not before he vows repeatedly to get his revenge. This fire within serves him well as he is taken in by Vikings who raise him as a berserker. During one of their forays into the lands of the Rus people, which encompasses parts of modern-day Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, Amleth (Skarsgard) learns that his uncle was overthrown by King Harald of Norway and lives in banishment in Iceland.
Seizing the opportunity to get his vengeance and rescue his mother, Amleth disguises himself as a slave before slipping onto a ship bound for Iceland. It is during the voyage that he meets a Slavic slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Witch”) who claims she is a sorceress, something she proves later. A connection develops between them as Amleth bides his time while continuing his ruse under his uncle’s nose.
Skarsgard, a native of Sweden who had long wanted to do a film about Vikings, is a powerful, physically imposing presence on the screen. He makes Thor the God of Thunder look weak and insignificant and could have possibly been a better choice for that role as he immerses himself into Amleth as seamlessly as Daniel Day Lewis on his best day. The one quibble with his performance is that sometimes it is a little difficult to understand his dialogue.
While Hawke is delightful in his role, his performance is all too brief, and it feels like he was underused. Kidman enjoys a little more screentime, but her presence is overshadowed by Taylor-Joy’s who is enchanting. While Olga may have some magical abilities, Taylor-Joy doesn’t let it be the defining characteristic of her pivotal role.
Eggers’s work is genuine homage to Viking culture and lore without losing itself in special effects-generated magic. Sure, you can sense a pinch of “Conan the Barbarian” and even “Lord of the Rings” in parts of “The Northman,” but in the end it remains true to itself and retains its own special identity.