THREE STARS A young Viking prince watches his father die. He vows to avenge his death, save his mother and kill his uncle.
PERIOD EPIC DRAMA US #THENORTHMAN
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman
There’s a critical question hanging over this critically acclaimed film: what’s the point of it all? If it’s to present a realistic character study of revenge, then it’s failed miserably. If THE NORTHMAN is a revenge tale dressed in fetish gear for enthusiasts of gratuitous violence, then it has succeeded admirably. But of course, what’s the point in that?
Based very loosely on HAMLET’s source material, here’s the story of Prince Amleth who seeks revenge for the death of his father at the hand of his uncle. Something is rotten in this state and so the boy flees, grows abs, turns into a warrior then returns to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle. One problem among many is that by now his widowed mother has remarried, to his uncle, and she doesn’t seem unhappy about the new arrangement.
Directed with considerable visual flair by Robert Eggers (THE LIGHTHOUSE), there is much to like about THE NORTHMAN, at least at first. Although the story arc of a vengeful son is certainly familiar (and how could it not be?), Eggers finds many compelling ways to draw us into the developing story of Viking anger. Monochrome is used heavily along with beautifully assembled scenes of dark intent. Amleth meeting with a witch is a standout.
Yet for all these compelling scenes there are just as many which are unconvincing at best, repellant at worst. Casting the beauty of Nicole Kidman and Ana Taylor Joy causes significant credibility problems in the muddy, icy north; problems that robust performances can’t shield. Logic lapses force audiences to recoil in bemusement while persistent chest-beating that might suit the overall tone grows tiresome once the film’s extraordinary body count, as Egger’s amps up what is already punishing violence, becomes ridiculous. Is he worried we’ll see through his staging and decides to paper over the cracks with severed heads and sprawling innards?
This excess may well be in line with the source material, a bloody tale on an ill wind. Yet there’s always a moment when too much is simply that. THE NORTHMAN reaches that point then surges on; madness without method. By the end of Amleth’s bloodbath, this feels like two films - a serious character study with arthouse aesthetic that’s at war with a video game on a primary mission of slaughter. Sadly, the video game won.