Director shows talent for mythology with Viking epic ‘The Northman’

Robert Eggers' latest is a sweeping tale of revenge — and it has Björk

Brad Keefe
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ "The Northman"

I recently rewatched Robert Eggers' debut film, “The Witch,” and it’s legitimately impressive this guy gets to keep making the movies he wants to make.

A supernatural folk tale set in 1630s New England with period-accurate dialogue didn’t scream “breakout hit,” but thanks to the director’s firm vision and a lead performance by a young Anya Taylor-Joy, he was given a long leash for future projects.

He followed that up with “The Lighthouse,” another period film that explored loneliness and isolation with deeply committed performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It was a critical favorite but not exactly accessible to wide audiences.

(Fun fact from the press junket for Eggers’ latest, “The Northman”: Taylor-Joy revealed she volunteered to play a mermaid in the film. Eggers wisely told her she didn’t want to play that mermaid.)

“The Northman” is signature Eggers, with an almost maniacal dedication to period authenticity, big themes and some surrealist and supernatural touches.

But Eggers is also commanding a bigger budget than he’s ever had (reportedly around $60 million), so he’s also made one of his more accessible movies. One concession he made was having characters in his Viking epic speak English instead of the original Norse.

We meet the titular character as young Prince Amleth, who witnesses the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle (Claes Bang) who then takes Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman) as his bride.

Young Amleth’s memorable refrain from the trailer is a pretty good plot summary: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

Skip ahead a couple of decades. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has spent this time getting ripped and plotting his vengeance. His path back to Fjölnir has him joining forces with Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), who’s been taken as a slave and spoil of war.

Eggers’ biggest movie to date, “The Northman” truly feels big. Big sets, big battle sequences and big themes. Eggers shows he’s ready for the jump to a bigger budget.

He’s also boasting an incredible cast, from the above stars to supporting roles from Willem Dafoe, Ralph Ineson and Björk(!).

Speaking of Icelandic icons, Eggers co-wrote the script with writer Sjón, Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist who recently penned “Lamb,” as well as Björk’s foray into the world of Lars von Trier, “Dancer in the Dark.”

While primarily a character study for Skarsgård’s Amleth and his journey for vengeance, the script goes big, as well, paying a reverent debt to Nordic mythology with a plot that’s complex but mostly clearly defined.

The scope (and the violence) will sate fans of “Game of Thrones,” but there’s a strong emotional hook working here, too.

Eggers continues to showcase a mastery for exploring this kind of folklore in another authentic period piece. I’d be curious to see what his style would be like on a more modern story, but “The Northman” nevertheless marks him as a director with an exceptional vision.

“The Northman”

Now playing in theaters

4 stars out of 5