THE NORTHMAN (15, 137 mins) Thriller/Romance/Action. Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Oscar Novak, Willem Dafoe, Bjork. Director: Robert Eggers.
HAVING established himself as a director of rare, singular talent via his eerie elevated folk horror debut, The Witch, and the entertainingly crazed psychological drama The Lighthouse which followed, Viking revenge picture The Northman finds director Robert Eggers making an auspicious debut raid on mainstream audiences.
Lensed by regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke who makes the most of lush Irish landscapes doubling for 1st century Iceland, it's a suitably epic affair which mixes Norse mythology – brought vividly to the screen via excellent CGI – with lashings of good old-fashioned Viking rape, pillage and murder.
The Northman also reunites Eggers with Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) – the former in lead turn as Olga, a victim of Viking violence who aids ousted Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) in his quest for revenge against treacherous kin, the latter in a small yet crucial supporting role which finds the veteran actor quickly reduced to little more than a grimly grinning gap-toothed skull.
When we first meet Amleth, he's a tween (played by Oscar Novak) anxiously awaiting the return of his father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) from battle alongside his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman).
Aurvandil does return, albeit bloody and battered: despite the protests of Gudrun, he decides it's time that Amleth readies himself to take the throne. This involves undergoing a psychotropic Viking 'coming of age' ritual during which father and son cavort like wild dogs before a roaring bonfire, with much howling, scrabbling and drinking face-first from bowls of foul-looking mind-altering brew prepared by cackling jester/shamen Heimer (Dafoe).
However, fate has a different plan: a murderous coup erupts and Amleth is forced to flee for his life, muttering the mantra "I will avenge you father, I will save you mother."
Years later, Amleth (Skarsgard) now is part of a group of Viking raiders laying siege to Russian villages. This involves him slaying soldiers with brute savagery: his fellow warriors are also seen merrily pillaging, committing sexual assault on any 'woman of age' that takes their fancy before gleefully rounding up the elder women and young children and burning them alive. That's not Amleth's thing, apparently/conveniently, but he's also not exactly doing anything to prevent it either.
Perhaps his mind is just uber-focused on the whole "avenge father/save mother" thing, at least one element of which an all-seeing seer (Bjork) has foretold as his destiny: Amleth also proves himself worthy of wielding the ancient sword required for the task following a nicely staged and possibly metaphysical battle with an undead guardian knight.
When Amleth gets wind that the object of his vengeance is now living in exile in Iceland along with his mother Queen Gudrun, he stows away aboard a prisoner ship bound for the volcanic isle along with the saleable survivors of his Viking tribe's recent incursion – including the beautiful Olga (Taylor-Joy), with whom he forms a strategic bond that's definitely only partially based on mutual lust.
What follows is a slow-build towards violent destiny as Amleth plots the moment he will strike at the man who stole everything from him while waging a campaign of steathy murder against those who protect him.
Happily, Eggers and co-writer Sjon have ensured that the bloody path to vengeance is far from straightforward, with at least one cleverly deployed plot development that wrong foots their angry anti-hero and indeed the audience themselves.
Both must confront the collateral damage of waging any kind of war, especially one which might result in mutually assured destruction: there's certainly no shortage of visual metaphors involving sliced off noses and blinded eyes in this film, which comes liberally smeared in dirt, blood, fire and, er, lava.
Centred upon and commanding and committed performance from Alexander Sarsgard, The Northman is a stylish and assured big budget endeavour from the until now cult US director, who manages to deliver plenty of unsettling nuance and grit with subject matter that could easily have become fodder for just another comic book style 'swords and sorcery' fest in less capable, thoughtful hands.