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‘The Northman: Collector’s Edition’ (Blu-ray review)

The Northman, starring Alexander Skarsgård, co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, is an ultra-violent realistic depiction of a Viking revenge tale.

It’s a throwback type action film that also utilizes today’s technology to depict a stylized telling of Viking life. While most people can glean this simply from watching the trailer, it’s fair to warn those of you who think this might be a good date movie because your significant other enjoys seeing Skarsgård shirtless, you’re about to see something you can’t unsee.

The story is simple enough.

A boy’s uncle kills his father, steals his kingdom, and takes his mother for his own. The boy, Amleth, vows revenge with the same white-hot intensity of Iñigo Montoya chanting over and over, “I will avenge you father. I will save you mother. I will kill you Fjölnir!”

That boy, who later becomes a man, turns his hate into action. If you think this sounds a lot like Hamlet, you’d be right.

Even the name Amleth sounds like Hamlet. Although the source material, as in all of Viking mythology, precedes Shakespeare’s master work by over a thousand years, there are too many similarities to ignore. There’s a murdered king, a widow turned bride, a prince with a giant chip on his shoulder, a troubled girl who distracts him from his vengeance, a court jester we later see the dead skull of, and a hint of incest.

We know those characters from English class as Lord Hamlet the King, Claudius his murderous brother, Gertrude his wife, Hamlet his son vowing to his father’s ghost to set things right, Ophelia his aide’s daughter who is a little strange, and Yorick his fool.

To be fair, in Hamlet, Yorick the fool is only spoken of in the past tense when the gravedigger hands his skull to Hamlet.

But here, The Northman does it a little differently.

Before I continue, I am not going to spend any time reviewing the violence of this film. If you want to see hulking bearded men behead, maim, and even display body parts, this movie had you at behead. The poster for The Northman alone gives one a fairly good indication of what you’re about to experience. Sadly, I think that demographic is all the studio promoting this film seems to want to attract. Prior reviews using phrases such as “visceral…bloody…badass…epic…” and even the phrase “sick as f*ck” were often used interspersed with berserker rage images of Skarsgård using everything from a battle axe to his own head to kill without mercy to help sell this film.

I’d rather discuss the emotional impact of a man weighed down by revenge.

While I’m certain The Northman press junket had thousands of questions for Skasgård about his workout routine I would have instead been curious about my favorite scene between Amleth and his mother Queen Gudrún played by the brilliant Nicole Kidman. Much has been made of Kidman playing Skarsgård’s mother in this film, especially since the two played husband and wife in HBO’s Big Little Lies, not to mention she is only nine years his senior in real life.

But I think, like Angela Lansbury who was only one year older than Laurence Harvey when she played his mother in the Manchurian Candidate, her performance is simply too good to care. The scene between them is so jarring it changes Amleth’s entire world view. It literally asks the question “what is he supposed to do now?” It is also a quieter more intimate moment in a film full of so much in your face imagery yet still manages to remain thick with tension.

Other less violent moments include Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga, Amleth’s fellow slave and love interest. Most audiences will know Taylor-Joy from her marvelous work on the hit Netflix limited series Queen’s Gambit. While she is undoubtedly a great actress Hollywood still hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her since her breakout performance. I can’t wait until she is the household name she deserves to be. Taylor-Joy is terrific here as Olga of the Birch Forest but I longed for her to have more to do.

More notable performances in The Northman include Ethan Hawke as Amleth’s father King Aurvandil, Willem Dafoe as Heimir the Fool, and Björk as the mystical Seeress. Although Björk is known mostly for her music, her acting is often overlooked. Her performance in Dancer in the Dark remains one of the most gut-wrenching performances ever put on film. Here she gets to have a bit more fun while rocking a unique look, even for her. Coincidentally, the co-writer of The Northman Sjón, who is also a native of Iceland, was nominated along with Björk and Lars Von Trier for Best Original Song for Dancer in the Dark.

Most of the attention forThe Northman outside of the graphic violence is the sweeping visual style of the film itself.

Robert Eggers, who previously helmed smaller films like The Witch and the critically acclaimed The Lighthouse, had quite a hill to climb on this film. While I think he ultimately succeeds employing some indelible imagery and even beauty in what would otherwise be considered simply carnage, he also gets in his own way.

Although I would suggest Eggers is an inspired filmmaker to watch, he overuses the all-in-one shot thing. It’s not his fault. Every film school in the world shows everything from Orson Welles’ iconic opening in Touch of Evil to Scorsese’s Goodfellas as brilliant examples of this shot. Films like Rope, 1917, and Birdman (which went on to win Best Picture) used this style to tell the entire story. And Leonardo DiCaprio’s win for Best Actor in The Revenant heavily relied on this device as well. Every filmmaker seems to want to put their own stamp on this, but while this is undoubtably cool it almost always reminds the viewer they are watching a movie.

And what’s worse, watching the directing.

One of the theories behind Hitchcock’s, and later Stan Lee’s, cameos in their respective films is it takes you out of the story long enough to say one thing, “I did this. I created what you’re watching.”

Extras include audio commentary by co-writer and director Robert Eggers, deleted and extended scenes, and several featurettes.

In conclusion, while most people might go to see The Northman for the blood and biceps, they should stay to see the story, too.

I mean, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare . . .

 

 

 

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