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'The Northman' is a beautiful and violent saga

Alexander Skarsgard is perfectly cast in The Northman. Photo credit: Focus Features

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Robert Eggers' bloody and bone-cracking and yet beautiful Viking saga The Northman is set primarily in 10th-century Iceland - but every frame of this 137-minute epic makes us feel as if we've been plunged neck-deep into the violent dread of Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell. Even the kings and queens and landowners in this fiery fever dream seem miserable and unfulfilled, while just about everyone else is either a brutally cruel henchman guarding and abusing slaves in forced labor camps, or one of the legions of slaves who are treated as subhuman creatures. 

This is not to say The Northman itself is unrelentingly grim. Director Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) is a boldly creative visionary, and his stunning visuals and hallucinatory staging of scenes makes for the kind of movie that really should be seen on the big screen. Drawing on the same well of Scandinavian culture and folklore (with a sprinkling of known historical events) that provided the foundation for Shakespeare's Hamlet, Eggers and his co-writer, the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjon, have crafted a sprawling and visceral tale with elements of everything from Gladiator to Conan the Barbarian to Braveheart, and at times it reminded me of a particularly pricey episode of Game of Thrones. Greatly enhancing that mix is a cast of some of our most interesting actors, from Ethan Hawke to Nicole Kidman to Anya Taylor-Joy to Alexander Skarsgard to Willem Dafoe as "Heimir the Fool."

The Northman opens with an extended prologue in which King Aurvandil (Hawke) returns from war, wounded but victorious, where he is greeted by his loyal, long-locked wife Queen Gudrun (Kidman) and his adoring young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak). The celebration is short-lived, however, when Aurvandil's nefarious and bloodthirsty brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders the king and takes the queen as his own bride. 

The terrified but resourceful young Amleth manages to escape, at which point we flash forward some 20 years, with Skarsgard taking on the role of Amleth, who is all dirty and muddy and battered and bruised but is also so built and so ripped it looks as if he discovered the first Equinox gym and hasn't skipped a workout in years. Amleth has become a great Viking warrior, but he becomes a stowaway and deliberately surrenders to slavery just so he can infiltrate the remote plantation farm owned by evil ol' Uncle Fjolnir, whose reign was apparently cut short - but hey, it appears he got a pretty sweet real estate deal as part of his exile. 

Along the way, Amleth meets and instantly falls in love with a Slavic slave named Olga (Taylor-Joy), who has a fiercely independent personality and just might be a sorceress, but probably not, but maybe. Once Amleth arrives at his destination, he's shocked to see his mother is still with Fjolnir (neither Amleth's uncle nor mother recognizes him), appears to be happy and has even given Fjolnir a son, Thorir (Gustav Lindh). Before Amleth confronts his mother to see if she still needs saving, before he faces off with his murderous uncle in the inevitable duel to the death, the story makes room for all kinds of violence, madness, sorcery, special effects and award-worthy costumes. Why, there's even time for a deadly match of a sport that appears to be a cross between croquet, cricket and Quidditch, only with extreme violence and the bashing of skulls. 

The Northman holds our attention with the unforgettable visuals and the sheer, raw audacity of its premise and its unrelenting violence. Skarsgard has never been the most emotive of actors, but he's perfectly cast here as the ferociously vengeance-minded Amleth, with Taylor-Joy lending her wonderful ethereal weirdness (and I mean that in the best possible way) to Olga. Nicole Kidman is only nine years older than Skarsgard, and there's no attempt to age her character over the decades, proving that even in the 10th century, Hollywood never blinks at this sort of gender-biased aging of actresses, but she delivers effectively duplicitous work while Dafoe and Hawke lend bearded intensity to their outstanding supporting performances.

The Northman is often insanely over the top, and there are moments when it feels as if Eggers could maybe ease his foot off the pyrotechnic pedals, but still, this is one of the most strikingly original and brutally effective movies of the year so far.

The Northman

Three and a half stars

Alexander Skarsgard, Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman

Robert Eggers

Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity

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