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Movie review: 'The Northman' excites with graphic Viking action

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Movie review: 'The Northman' excites with graphic Viking action
Alexander Skarsgard gets his hands dirty in "The Northman." Photo courtesy of Focus Features

LOS ANGELES, April 11 (UPI) -- The Northman, in theaters April 22, is like a Viking Conan movie. Conan was a barbarian in a fantasy world, while Robert Eggers' new film delivers thrills with a historical basis.

As a child, Amleth (Oscar Novak) admires his warrior-king father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Aurvandil trains Amleth in animal behavior and commands that his son avenge him should he die in battle, which soon comes to pass.

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Aurvandil's brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), murders the king and kidnaps his queen, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). When Amleth grows up into the body of Alexander Skarsgard, he returns for revenge.

Director Eggers doesn't shy away from the violence of Viking battles, yet it never feels gratuitous. The Northman presents Fjolnir's attack from young Amleth's point of view, on the ground, hiding from the worst atrocities.

Amleth still practices his animal rage as an adult. When he leads a clan to attack a village, it's not pretty.

A hulking, bloody Skarsgard makes quite an engrossing action hero. He performs some physical feats in single takes that either are impressively practiced or seamlessly enhanced with visual effects. That you can't tell which makes the action compelling.

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Amleth's new clan still rapes the women whose village they conquer, so it's not like they're noble warriors. Fortunately, Eggers moves the camera as soon as you realize what's going on, so it's honest about the world of Viking battle without exploiting it.

Posing as a slave to get passage back to Fjolnir's kingdom, Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes an ally. Of course, when he finally gets there, revenge proves to be not quite as simple as he imagined it as a child.

The action keeps ramping up, including gaping battle wounds and disembowlings. Eggers, who co-wrote the script with Sjon, includes just enough mysticism to feel epic without breaking the grounded reality of The Northman.

Like his 17th-century New England horror movie The Vvitch, Eggers fills The Northman with authentic details. Title cards in Norse language and a few subtitled sections give a sense of language lost to time.

Granted, they would not be speaking English in 895 AD, but the accents feel as researched and crafted as possible without losing the entire audience. Eggers skillfully chooses just enough detail to keep The Northman feeling accessible to 2022 viewers.

The Northman is a refreshingly R-rated historical adventure like the days of Braveheart and Gladiator. Plus, it looks like they staged battles around real locations in England and Iceland, so The Northman really stands out from the glut of movies that use green-screens for computer-generated special effects.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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