After the brutal murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapping of his mother (Nicole Kidman), Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) sets out on a years-long journey across the Viking world for revenge. Along the way, he joins forces with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a captured woman who utilises her cunning to help Amleth on his quest for bloody vengeance.
If you're familiar with your Danish history or Shakespearean etymology, chances are you'll already be roughly familiar with 'The Northman'. The story that gave the world 'Hamlet' - arguably the most adapted of all of the Bard's works - was really a sinewy revenge story involving berserker vikings, blood feuds, betrayal, and lots of rain and mud. That we think of 'Hamlet' now and are drawn to the likes of Kenneth Branagh's resplendent adaptation in our minds is something that Robert Eggers sets out to rectify inside of the opening five or ten minutes. This version of 'Hamlet' is cut back to the bone, preserving only the most vital elements and as a result, making it all the more stronger.
Much like Akira Kurosawa's 'Throne of Blood' or Elder Millenial cultural touchstone '10 Things I Hate About You', a change of scenery often does wonders for Shakespeare and allows it to flourish. 'The Northman' turns 'Hamlet' into a pulsing thriller where the camera moves constantly, the dialogue is sharpened to a knife's edge, and the performances are as visceral and committed as you can get. Alexander Skarsgard channels the intensity he displayed in the likes of 'Generation Kill', all thousand-yard stares and violent upheaval, while Claes Bang matches him with equal ferocity in later scenes. Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy both spin what could have been easily relegated to supporting roles into something truly special, with Kidman, in particular, doing some of her best work in years in the final act. Speaking of supporting roles, it's a credit to Robert Eggers' eye for casting that familiar faces like our own Olwen Fouéré and Ralph Ineson crop up and look completely at ease in the harsh landscape he's created.
By far, 'The Northman' is Robert Eggers' most mainstream movie yet. After the mind-bending two-hander of 'The Lighthouse', you can see how his skills have progressed to such a point where he can take on a saga like this and bend it to his own vision and skill, yet still make it accessible for multiplex audiences to grasp. In fact, it might even inspire them to seek out both 'The Lighthouse' and 'The VVitch'. Yet, in comparison to those two movies, 'The Northman' feels lesser in certain respects. 'The Lighthouse' wasn't afraid to go to some truly batshit places, same as 'The VVitch', and let the audience figure it all out. Here, 'The Northman' is much more linear and - dare we say it - formulaic. After all, it's a revenge story and revenge stories can only go towards one place - and the ending for 'The Northman' leaves nothing to the imagination, both thematically and physically.
Yet, like a snarling, raging thrash metal headbanger of a song, it's all so brutally effective that you're not overly concerned with any of this when you're in it because it's such an assault on the senses. The sound design, the cinematography, the weighty dialogue - there's even flashes of the toilet humour in 'The Lighthouse'. You can't help but get a sense that director Robert Eggers has hit his stride here and is on his way to something much bigger than a comic-book movie. If ever there was a director to take on 'Nosferatu' for a new generation, it's him.
'The Northman' succeeds as one of the most striking adaptations of 'Hamlet' put on screen, with a cast more than equal to the task and a director in full command of his talents. The rest is silence.