Opening this weekend...
The Northman--The hero of this historical epic is Amleth, a 9th-Century Nordic prince whose father is murdered by his brother, who then marries Amleth's mother. Amleth flees, vowing revenge. When he's all grown up into the strapping Alexander Skarsgård and enjoying a nice career as a raiding, ravaging berserker, he travels to Iceland, poses as a slave on the estate of his Uncle (Claes Bang)--who's still married to Amleth's seemingly contented Mom (Nicole Kidman)--and waits for the chance to avenge his Dad.
Wait, haven't we heard this story somewhere?
Yeah, sort of. The Amleth legend, as recorded in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th Century, is the root that, greatly refined by time and civilization, ultimately grew into Shakespeare's Hamlet. But director Robert Eggers, who wrote the script with the Icelandic poet and novelist known as Sjön, prefers to take the story of fratricide punished back to the raw source material.
This is, on the whole, a serious attempt at a historically and mythically accurate depiction of the Middle Ages. That's not to say that it's always an accurate depiction of daily reality in those times, but the movie tries to be true to the era's imaginative and moral sensibilities. As such, it's a seriously harsh, bloody, gory, nasty tale. It offers us almost no quarter, and asks none of us.
For that, it has to be respected. Not many big-budget period movies are this unwilling to throw a sop to modern attitudes. These characters aren't just 21st-century people dressed in Viking drag; when, say, helpless peasants (including children) are locked in a hall that's set on fire after a battle, Amleth isn't the perpetrator, but he doesn't stop it, or object to it, or even seem to notice it. It's just another day at the barbarian office.
The acting is strong. Skarsgård is capable and appealing as Amleth, Anya Taylor-Joy feels period-authentic as the enslaved woman he comes to love, Kidman has an impressive, almost Shakespearean bearing as the Mom. Ethan Hawke as Amleth's Dad and Willem Dafoe as a lippy jester are both effective, and Björk has a creepy scene as a prophet. Best of all is Claes Bang, who wisely plays the murdering brother as a sensible, reflective man.
Despite all this creditable work, what with mutilated servants, and the horses with severed heads, and plenty of other atrocities, the list of people who will prefer to take a pass on The Northman is likely to be long. Even on it's own terms, it's a little slow, and a little heavy, although it gathers steam as it goes, and by the time we get to the final showdown--in the midst of a volcanic eruption!--it's entirely engrossing.
The movie also comes across--unintentionally, I think--as a little, well, Aryan. If you aren't in the mood to watch a lot of stripped-down white guys screaming into the camera as they psych themselves up for battle, this may not be the flick for you. This behavior is historically accurate, of course, and again, I don't think for a moment that it was what Eggers and Sjön had in mind, but it's too easy to imagine a bunch of skinheads or Proud Boys watching this movie over and over, and nodding along with the rage.
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