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The Northman

Director: Robert Eggers

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Novak, Björk

Following his debut, the dread-imbued portrayal of religious hysteria ‘The Witch’, and heart of darkness-plumbing nightmare ‘The Lighthouse’, writer-director Robert Eggers goes full-on sensory maximalist with this intense and bloody Viking saga. It was co-adapted with the suitably foreboding-sounding Icelandic writer-poet Sjón from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which was also the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It begins with King Aurvandill (Hawke) returning from his latest victory to his family Queen Gudrun (Kidman) and young son Amleth (Novak). Shortly after a ceremony in which Amleth is initiated into manhood, Aurvandill is murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Bang), who carries Gudrun away. Amleth flees in a boat swearing to wreak revenge.

Cut to some years later where Amleth (Skarsgård) is a muscular grown man and part of a band of marauding Slavs in the land of Rus. When a seeress (an unnervingly otherworldly Björk) reminds him of his oath, Amleth deserts his band of warriors, and posing as a slave, is sold into the service of his uncle. Neither Fjölnir nor his mother recognize Amleth as he plots his revenge. The love of a beautiful fellow slave Olga (Taylor-Joy) seems to offer another path.

Characterisation is basic with the hulking protagonist and pretty much all the rest of the cast bellowing their portentous dialogue in various brands of Icelandic-accented English. Kidman at least embraces the go-for-broke, silliness-bordering spirit in a juicy scene in which Gudrun confesses her true motives to her returned son.

With its relentless booming soundtrack and Viking ultraviolence, the picture is destined to be a favourite with viewers who equate sensory bombardment to Pure Cinema. One impressively-staged sequence, which in a single take follows Amleth as he strides through a village being mercilessly pillaged by his Slav comrades-in-arms, brings to mind Elem Klimov’s nausea-inducing and relentless anti-war picture ‘Come and See’. And to the script’s credit, amidst all the blood-letting, there is a hint that Amleth’s quest is a nihilistic dead end.

Alongside the unearthly renderings of the Icelandic environs, Jarin Blaschke’s excellent cinematography boasts some hallucinatory imagery, such as a celestial family tree with Amleth’s relatives suspended from its branches. At times the visuals go full-on Heavy Metal mode, most notably in a hysterical vision sequence as a waling Valkyrie (Lithuanian model Ineta Sliuzaite) bounds into Valhalla.

The Northman is released 15th April

David Willoughby

Follow David on twitter @DWill_Crackfilm

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