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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Definitive Viking Movie
by Frank Wilkins

Were you appalled by the viciousness of Kirk Douglas’ Einar character in 1958’s The Vikings? Was the “viking handkerchief” face washing scene in 1999’s The 13th Warrior one of the most disgusting things ever? Think you know what a viking is? You have no idea.

Having set out to make the definitive Viking movie with The Northman, director, co-writer Robert Eggers – along with writing partner, Icelandic poet, Sjón – shoots for unconditional authenticity by working with archaeologists and historians to get all the tiny minutiae of the Viking physical world right. Say what you will about the importance of accuracy in a Viking movie set in the 10th century AD, but there’s no denying that with The Northman, Eggers has indeed, created the definitive Viking movie.

In addition to his brilliant attention to detail when bringing to life the physical world of 10th Century Scandinavia, Eggers also clearly pays close attention to the inner workings of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology, and ritual life. Coming from the twisted mind behind such epic atmospheric pressure cookers as The Witch and The Lighthouse, the fact that he focuses on the “who” and “how” with little emphasis on the “why” should certainly come as no surprise. The Northman finds its biggest success in its depiction of Viking rituals, their spiritual beliefs, and how closely knit the people were to nature. Something we’ve not really seen in a Viking movie.

With shades of Beowulf and Braveheart in its DNA, The Northman is a bloody revenge story. Plain and simple. A loosely retold Hamlet, with Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince robbed of his heir to the kingdom as a young boy when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bong, The Girl in the Spider's Web) kills Amleth’s father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), and kidnaps his mother (Nicole Kidman). Set on avenging his father’s death, Amleth sets out on an epic quest across the North Atlantic in search of those responsible for his father’s death.

When Amleth learns that his uncle has been dethroned and now takes up residence in Iceland, Amleth stows away on a slave ship bound for Iceland with eyes set on avenging his father’s death. Along the journey, Amleth befriends a fellow slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit), who holds an interesting connection to the supernatural.

Norse and Viking mythology, as depicted in many recent film and TV shows, paints a highly romanticized and glossy picture designed to look good on the screen. Well, this isn’t one of those. This is Eggers and this is The Northman. Nothing is pretty. In fact, quite the opposite. These people weren’t clean. We smell the stench of their bodies as they slog through the unsanitary filth of muddy, makeshift camps. Neither were they pretty, and they certainly weren’t very civilized. Having traded in slavery, they robbed and pillaged the countryside at random, and their chosen form of entertainment was a game called knattleikr, a violent precursor to modern day lacrosse in which the last player left breathing is the winner… and we watch it play out in its full bloody glory.

Though The Northman is not a horror movie, there is plenty of gore and there are horror beats throughout its narrative that will likely provide some cross-appeal to those genre fans. But it’s the brutally honest depiction, without judgment, of the Vikings that further sets Eggers’ film apart from others in the genre.

The beauty of the Icelandic countryside juxtaposes nicely against the brutality and savagery of the people who inhabit it. Speaking of brutality, consider yourself forewarned. Pretty much every living thing that appears on the screen will be slaughtered at one time or another – humans and animals alike. You’ll want to cover your eyes more than once. It ain’t pretty, but it is certainly real.

Eggers, along with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, employs long, dense camera takes which further immerse us into the culture of the people. Defying the principles of conventional filmmaking, the whole thing becomes a totally intense and immersive experience that somehow endears us to its power and beauty despite a total lack of charm and absence of even a single redeeming character to latch on to. It’s all just so perfectly done.

(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity.)

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