Brawny and bloody, mythic and mystic, “The Northman” is a revenge quest as Viking saga, an epic that wears that label lightly.
Robert Eggers’ grim, gory and gorgeous tale lets us sentimentalize “the hero’s journey,” and then disembowels that sentiment to make us question revenge as a dramatic driving force.
The savagery here is searing and personal and borderline genocidal when deployed about whole clans and villages.
Alexander Skarsgård has the title role, the son of a wounded and aging king (Ethan Hawke) who dreads “the long life of a shameful grey beard.” His treacherous half-brother (Claes Bang) will see to that. But before he dies, the king has his boy (Oscar Novak) initiated by a shaman, a hallucinatory temple sauna ceremony that allows the child “the last tear you shed in weakness.”
The boy has just enough time to absorb the responsibilities and expectations laid on him before his father is murdered and he is chased into exile, rowing away with sea chanty vows of “I will avenge you, Father, I will save you Mother, I will kill you Fjölnir,” the “brotherless” usurper who took his mother and became king.
The boy’s name is Amleth, and as there’s a murdered father, a remarried mother (Nicole Kidman) and a jester (Willem Dafoe) in this palace court, the similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet are certainly intentional. But the adult Amleth is no “melancholy Dane,” dithering about “To be, or not to be.” Fleeing to the East, growing up among a clan that makes upriver slaving raids among the Rus (Russians) its chief business, Amleth never takes his eyes off the prize.
He passes himself off as a slave and joins the feisty, mystical Slav Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) on the long boat bound to Iceland, where Fjölnir and his mother have fled, running a big farm because the kingdom he stole has been stolen from him. Amleth will get close, “torment” his tormentor and fulfill his “revenge at the Gates of Hel” destiny.
And he’ll have that seriously sexy blonde Slav temptress as a further motivation.
A century of Viking films and a couple of solid but soapy TV series are cast aside in “Northman’s” attention to anthropological detail. Eggers and his co-writer (Sjón, of “Lamb”) give us a wholly-conceived world of sturdy woodwork, leather, steel, mud and blood. There are historically-sound realizations of Viking religion and Viking rituals — throat singing as it is still practiced in Tibet, a score of drums, pipes and animal horns, displays of menacing, bellowing pre-battle brawn made famous the Maori of New Zealand , frenzied dances and “berserking,” pitiless murder and pillaging. There are mystical succession ceremonies and visions of a Valkyrie escort to Valhalla.
Skarsgård, in fearsome-enough-to-be-shirtless shape, gives Amleth just enough brooding contemplation to make the character’s story arc credible. He is as limited in his choice of actions as that Prince of Denmark. He must do what he must do, even when he starts to question it.
Tayloy-Joy, the “It Girl” who first gained fame in Eggers’ breakout film “The Witch,” makes Olga of the Birch Forest fearsome and positively possessed when the occasion calls for it, beguiling when that’s her play.
“Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she teases her lover-to-be. “I have the cunning to break their minds.”
The Icelandic singer Björk pops up as a seeress, and a few familiar non-Nordic faces pepper the cast, which explains the odd but effective Scots-Nordic accent that passes for lingua franca in this Viking world.
Eggers blends in plenty of lighter moments in this swords and savagery tale, with Dafoe sparkling as the king’s fool and gags about the new king’s oldest son, the slightly-built Thórir the Proud (Gustav Lindh), playing “Quien es mas macho?” with the hulking, 12-packed new slave.
But some laughs — over-the-top touches here and there — seem unintentional. And as the picture makes its turn for the finish line, it meanders and dips into the mystic a tad more than I cared for.
Yet “Northman” never stops feeling like a saga, a tale passed down orally, a Viking “Odyssey.” It’s never less than epic, never less than the new benchmark in Viking stories put on film.
And Skarsgård, given a rare lead, and the filmmakers make us invest in this “hero’s journey” even if we think we’ve guessed how it ends. Because with those bloody-minded Vikings, you just never know.
Rating: R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Bjork and Willem Dafoe.
Credits: Directed by Robert Eggers, scripted by Sjón and Robert Eggers. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:16