The plot is fairly basic with what appears to be a reasonably happy family situation with King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), his beloved wife Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). The only shadow on the board is his brother (Claes Bang) who we see too early as a troublemaker. Which is proven shortly after when he murders his brother, in the presence of Amleth. A hunt begins for the boy, who escapes.
Amleth (now Alexandar Skarsgård) we pick up a few years later full, in a rowboat and a Viking raiding party that rapes and plunders after a wolf-based dance and ritual. It’s bloody stuff but they get what they wanted from slaves for a shepherd who happens to be his uncle who was forced to move out after being ousted.
Seeing an opportunity to get revenge and save his mother, he disguises himself as a slave and sneaks on the boat to Iceland. Here he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who sees he is not a slave and falls in love with her. He indulges with the Fjölnír clan knowing that he will never be considered on their level. From there, he plots his revenge.
Robert and Sjón Eggers’ script is purple and ripe to burst with accents that go along with the usually ripped torsos of the main male leads. However, once the viewer gets past that, we have an absorbing mix of action, intrigue, and ritual.
The action is spectacularly gritty, muddy bloody and violent fought over grand landscapes and hell fires. Based on the Norse legend of Amleth, this has the politics and plot of Shakespeare and I would suggest a Greek tragedy. Especially the latter with the family twists and turns towards a predestined fate.
There are plenty of rituals in The Northman with Willem Dafoe and Björk having choice cameos. It gets a bit repetitive, though mirroring it serves to identify the various clans as having their own identities rather than lumping them all together as Vikings.
There’s not much humor here, although a sequence at the start of what looked like an early version of hockey or lacrosse is reminiscent of Monty Python’s Batley Townswomens’ Guild recreation of the attack of Pearl Harbor.
The actors are all top-notch and manage to successfully create empathy for the characters, even the most gruesome looking ones. After three movies, it’s too early to say Eggers has a cast regular, but along with Defoe and Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson is coming in as captain.
The Northman is bold and brutal in its portrayal of violence and the treatment of family and people. It’s an epic that draws on ancient myth and magic, which fuels an intrinsic belief that they are in the hands of the gods, and nothing more than their playthings.