By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Set at the turn of the 10th century, the Viking epic “The Northman” (Focus) seeks to immerse viewers in the Nordic culture of that era.
But director and co-writer Robert Eggers’ drive for accuracy leads to a depiction of grotesque bloodletting while his detailed portrayal of the pagan faith of medieval Scandinavia leaves his sweeping drama on an ambiguous moral footing.
That’s a shame because the intense performances of the movie’s dedicated cast have the potential to sustain viewer interest across a lengthy run time. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke makes the most of striking landscapes, moreover, and Eggers conjures up an ethereal mood as the script he penned with Icelandic poet Sjón draws on the same legend on which Shakespeare based his tragedy “Hamlet.”
Instead of the Bard’s tortured youth, however, we’re shown the tumultuous life of Prince Amleth while a boy (Oscar Novak) and then as a man (Alexander Skarsgard). At the tender age of 10, Amleth is traumatized by witnessing his Uncle Fjölnir’s (Claes Bang) murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), and subsequent forcible marriage to his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
Amleth flees into exile, vowing to exact vengeance. By the time we next see him, he’s an embittered adult, emotionally unattached to anyone and an enthusiastic, utterly callous, participant in murderous raids.
Learning that Fjölnir has been deposed from his stolen throne and has taken refuge in Iceland, Amleth disguises himself as a captured Rus slave in order to be transported there. As he awaits his chance to strike against Fjölnir, who is now his master, he falls for Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow bondservant.
In writing their screenplay, Eggers and Sjón seem to want to have it both ways where Amleth’s quest to get even with Fjölnir is concerned. On the one hand, his obsession plunges him into an isolation from which only his romance with Olga temporarily liberates him. And his desire to settle scores is, ultimately, shown to be as destructive for him as for his adversary.
Yet, in part at least, the picture also buys into the nonscriptural religious notion that revenge will restore Amleth’s family’s honor and achieve justice for his slain parent. Additionally, defeating Fjölnir eventually becomes a necessity if Amleth is to protect Olga.
The audience is thus left uncertain whether to cheer Amleth on or shake their heads at his misguided fixation. In between doing either, they’ll be busy wincing at his grisly doings, on and off the battlefield.
The film contains skewed values, gruesome gory violence, strong sexual content, including premarital activity and nudity, references to incest, at least one crude term and a few crass expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.