Metro Weekly

Film: ‘The Northman’ Is A Gory Tale Of Murder Most Foul

Alexander Skarsgård slays as a prince dishing out ice-cold vengeance in the musclebound, medieval epic "The Northman."

The Northman: Alexander Skarsgård -- Photo: Aidan Monaghan / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC
The Northman: Alexander Skarsgård – Photo: Aidan Monaghan / ©2021 Focus Features

A gory tale of murder, conquest, and revenge, The Northman (★★★☆☆) unfolds like the sort of epic that Viking warriors might have passed down for generations, sharing over horns of ale around a roaring fire: the haunting Legend of Prince Amleth.

The exiled prince’s trials and adventures appear to have been shot by firelight, too. Writer-director Robert Eggers and his Oscar-nominated Lighthouse cinematographer Jarin Blaschke opt for enveloping the action in shadows and mist, the natural darkness of a northern land where winter nights are long, and the days short.

Even the film’s climactic showdown, a naked sword fight by a lake of lava and fire, is depicted as a brutal clash between silhouettes backlit by flames.

Rivals dueling on an erupting volcano forms a gorgeous tableau, but audiences might, for various reasons, wish they could actually see more of the combatants swinging their swords — especially the ferocious Amleth, embodied heartily by Alexander Skarsgård.

The erstwhile Tarzan delivers a gruelingly physical performance, fighting, running, lifting, swimming, hauling, speaking primarily and most clearly through Amleth’s vivid body language. The camera captures as much rage and intention in how Amleth leaps at his opponents as it does in any shot of Skarsgård’s face, or speaking any line of dialogue.

The actor turns the taciturn warrior into a stealthy weapon of vengeance, with perhaps just one weakness: Amleth is forever haunted by having witnessed the murder of his father, and the kidnapping of his mother. He won’t know peace until he has avenged them.

Eggers and co-screenwriter Sjón (who also co-wrote last year’s eccentric drama Lamb) basically have grafted a Viking revenge narrative onto the bones of Hamlet, and, as usual for Shakespeare, the plotting holds up well to adaptation.

The cast are up to the task of delineating the complex emotions of family infighting that, between bouts of blood-and-guts violence, propel Amleth’s tale. Ethan Hawke — not exactly the first Hollywood actor brought to mind by the phrase “Viking ruler” — lends a stirring nobility to his doomed King Aurvandil, father of Amleth. And Danish actor Claes Bang, so compelling in the title role of Netflix’s recent Dracula mini-series, makes an equally potent antagonist here, as Aurvandil’s half-brother Fjölnir.

Resentful Fjölnir covets his brother’s kingdom and his wife, Queen Gudrún, portrayed with icy resolve by Nicole Kidman. The Oscar-winner spends much of the film on the sidelines, as Gudrún’s mind and motivations remain a mystery. While the character serves mostly as adviser to the men in her life, Kidman saves her real firepower for when Gudrún finally lays all her cards on the table in a gripping monologue clarifying the queen’s loves and allegiances.

The Northman: Nicole Kidman -- Photo: Aidan Monaghan / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC
The Northman: Nicole Kidman — Photo: Aidan Monaghan / ©2021 Focus Features

It’s a marvelous scene, and one of the few times that words speak louder than actions amidst the deep shadows, stormy grays, and earthy palette of Eggers’ dense, mystical Dark Ages. Amleth sees light only in his glorious visions of valkyries, and in the love of kind, enslaved Olga, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who also starred in Eggers’ 2015 breakout hit The Witch.

In fact, ancient witchcraft and hallucinogen-driven visions play a crucial role in Amleth’s quest for revenge, as he’s told his fate by fortune-teller, the Seeress (a most welcome Björk). But no amount of magic can conjure much romantic chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Skarsgård, who, rather, commits his body and soul to the one thing Amleth really lives for, revenge.

Again and again, Amleth is offered a choice between hope and death, forgiveness and retribution. He never wavers. The movie strikes its hardest blow in showing a man who will proudly raise his sword for vengeance every time.

The Northman is Rated R and is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit

The Northman
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