Director: Robert Eggers
Talent: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: April 15
Robert Eggers is an obsessive, the hallmark of a great artist. In order to make the dialogue more accurate in The Witch, his directorial debut set in New England, he scoured 17th century colonial diaries and letters; the family’s belongings were based on household inventories of early Puritan settlers. Elsewhere, Eggers mined a manual for lighthouse keepers from 1881 to structure his two-hander followup. The man’s no slouch when it comes to period detail.
While clearly a visionary director, Eggers’ denouements have a habit of descending into abstraction, forgoing any sense of payoff. So even though I admired The Lighthouse, I felt a bit shut out from it. It was more impressive than involving. Part of me was thrilled by the free associative style, but when the credits rolled, I felt a bit cheated out of a third act, simpleminded consumer that I am.
Based on the source for Hamlet, The Northman sees its protagonist, Viking Prince Amleth (Skarsgård), set out on a collision course of vengeance for the killing of his father, King Aurvandill (Hawke), by Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Bang). The scheming uncle then coercively elopes with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Kidman), ordering his men to slay Amleth. The prince has no choice but to flee, vowing one day to fulfil his fate and mete out his revenge. He grows up to be a ferocious warrior of esteem. While pillaging a town, he stows away on a boat containing slaves as it’s bound for his uncle’s fiefdom. Among these slaves, he strikes up a bond with cunning Olga (Taylor-Joy), who agrees to help him.
So far so Hamlet, but this rendering has many a twist up its sleeve. Amleth will soon learn that the motivation behind his father’s murder wasn’t as clearcut as he thought. What’s more, his burgeoning affections for Olga will complicate matters. His familial predicament becomes pleasingly knotty and complex in the third act (yes, there is one).
Eggers has widened his canvas to an unprecedented scale here. The film’s both epic and grounded. Set pieces are tracked by swooping ‘oner’ shots – jargon for one-shot takes – that stay close to the action. The sense of spectacle never runs away with itself.
There’s a tendency for the world of epic movies to feel a bit sterile, the grubby world of humans getting overawed – see Dune. Not so here. The spectacle doesn’t come at the expense of intimacy thanks to all the granular period detail resulting from Eggers’ obsessiveness. You are completely immersed in this world as opposed to appreciating a fussed-over art object from a distance, like with The Lighthouse.
And then there’s the gleeful brutality. Amleth’s first killing requires Skarsgård to throw an axe at a guy on a horse, bite off his ear and howl at the moon. And yet, the visceral violence is offset by the pictorial beauty of the vistas.
What a rush this film is. Every actor is beyond committed, matching Eggers’ devotion. It appears Eggers had to appease the studio, making changes in the edit. While studio interference can hamstring artists, it’s worked a treat for the uncompromising Eggers.
Sure, there are plenty of hallucinatory visions along the way, but they serve the story rather than supplant it. With his arthouse credentials secured, Eggers has given himself permission to make a riveting film that’s also true to his singular vision. He doesn’t squander his ending to obtuse atmospherics. His most gratifying work to date.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Jordan Barry-Browne @illstrips