Only the man who made a movie with Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and a mermaid in a lighthouse could’ve made “The Northman.” Inspired by the Norwegian legend of Amleth — a source for Shakespeare when he was writing “Hamlet” — director Robert Eggers ditches poise and properness for violence and psychedelia, culminating in a brutal, intense and astounding Viking epic.
When his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns wounded from battle, young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) prepares to ascend to the throne. In an act of betrayal, Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) executes the King, seizing the kingdom and taking Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his wife. The young prince escapes by boat and finds refuge with another group of Vikings.
Many years later, a grown-up Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) encounters a Seeress (Björk) who reminds him about his fate and royal lineage. With the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave, Amleth returns to his kingdom to take back what’s rightfully his.
“Hamlet,” even in its elegant Danish setting, deals with dark and violent themes but every adaptation veers away from it. Eggers leans into the violence heavily with severed heads, flailing organs and plenty of thrown spears. Most of these scenes are done in long continuous takes, lending a visceral feel to the battle sequences.
The film’s introduction to the older Amleth is a phenomenal action sequence that begins with him grabbing a spear mid-air and throwing it back at a rival tribe. From there, he rumbles with two axes and decapitates Vikings as they ride on horses. The camera never lets off Amleth and, without a single word, the viewers witness his barbaric nature and have a strong understanding of the character.
Eggers and his co-writer, Icelandic poet Sjón (“Lamb”), include psychedelic elements that add an eeriness and unsettling atmosphere to the movie. In the film’s first act, King Aurvandill and Amleth take part in a spiritual ritual led by Heimir the Food, an unhinged Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man,” “The Florida Project”), where they get on all fours and howl at the sky. It’s an outrageous scene that feels like a fever dream.
Those unfamiliar with “Hamlet” or Norse mythology might have some trouble with the dense storytelling. However, “The Northman” is an experience instead of a typical, exposition heavy movie. The best way to consume Eggers’ magnum opus is by his masterful direction, Jarin Blaschke’s (“Back Roads,” “The Lighthouse”) beautiful cinematography and an all-star cast giving excellent performances.
Skarsgård (“The Legend of Tarzan,” “Big Little Lies”) is the perfect choice as a Viking Prince seeking revenge. He looks the part — instilling fear in his opponents and the audience — and nails the brutish gruff personality of Amleth. He continues his streak of playing menacing characters and delivers one of his strongest performances to date.
Casting Kidman (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Lion”) — only nine years older than Skarsgård — as Amleth’s mother is an interesting choice with an insane payoff in the second half. In this half, Kidman is a riot. She gives an over-the-top, almost deranged performance that’s nothing short of a marvel. Kidman’s responsible for some of the greatest memes to exist and, to quote one of them, her Queen Gudrún did make movies better.
The rest of the cast delivers strong performances. Bang (“The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” “Locked Down”) is effective as a stoic villain and Hawke (“Before Sunrise,” “Boyhood”) is always a delight to see, even if he warranted more screen time.
It’s been reported Focus Features meddled with the film after initial screenings proved to be poor. Allegedly, one of their required changes was to shorten the first act. While it doesn’t derail the movie, it feels rushed and edited differently than the rest of the film’s patient pace.
“The Northman” must be seen on the biggest screen this side of Norway — it’s a breathtaking and vicious journey, almost as if viewers are traveling to Valhalla on a Valkyrie.
“The Northman,” rated R, releases in theaters April 22.