It’s been a while since we’ve had a complete blood-and-guts battle orgy, where warriors in sacks and animal skins throw themselves into battle, swinging swords and burning torches, shields, axes and daggers as they roar in dialogue. which mostly begins and ends with “RAAARRRGGGHHH!” There’s a lot of it in The Norwegiana skinny fever dream that makes the insane craft horror that put director Robert Eggers on the map – The witch and The lighthouse – similar to Disney movies. To use an expression from a ritualistic fire song, where Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth blurs the line between man and animal, this is the untamed “berserker” of Nordic legends.
As Eggers navigates the leap from his modestly budgeted former instant cult film to this grandiose $ 90 million massacre for Focus Features, Eggers is nothing, if not fearless. The director once again takes advantage of production designer Craig Lathrop’s and customer Linda Muir’s meticulously detailed work, evoking an immersive, poignant evocative atmosphere that throws us back to the early 10th century, a dark and viscerally violent past in which human savagery and supernatural coexists.
The bottom line
Wildly elemental, energetic and unhinged.
The unintentional campy dialogue in the script Eggers co-wrote with the Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón (Lamb) quite often provokes giggles, and the Scandinavian accents that come out of the mouths of actors like Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke run the risk of House of Gucci trauma relapse. It’s a daring film that keeps threatening to move into some strange no – man’s land where Game of Thrones meetings Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And that is even before Björk looks past as a witch seer, equipped in wickerwork, seashells and pearls.
But The Norwegian‘s looting energy holds you hostage, and Prince Amleth is the hunky, heroically vengeful killing machine with a heart that Skarsgård was born to play. Longtime fans will get a kick out of him by taking advantage of the cultural roots of his old Real blood vampire, Eric Northman too.
The script is based on both Nordic myths and Icelandic family sagas, based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, who inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The prologue takes place in the fictional North Atlantic island kingdom of Hrafnsey, where King Aurvandil (Hawke), also called War-Raven, comes home to great fanfare. The rupture of his intestines inflicted by an enemy in battle causes him to prepare 10-year-old Amleth (Oscar Novak) to take over the throne, despite Queen Gudrún (Kidman)’s objections that their son is only a boy. Amleth’s transcendental initiation involves crawling around on all fours underground with his father and howling like wolves. In addition, burping, farting, hovering and gaining access to disturbing vision via Aurvandil’s wounds.
Not before has Amleth vowed to avenge his father if he were to die by an enemy’s sword before the boy witnesses his murder at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), whose freshness with the queen has already been joked with the shamanic court jerk, Heimir (Willem Dafoe).
“Bring me the boy’s head,” Fjölnir commands his men, accompanied by the screaming strings and thumping drums of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s hard-running score. But Amleth, after seeing the slaughter of male villagers, the abduction of the women and the queen slung over Fjölnir’s shoulder and pulled away screaming, flees by boat. He promises to save his mother, kill his uncle and avenge his father.
A few decades later, Amleth has transformed into a muscular man who exploits the spirit of both a wolf and a bear. He is furiously personified, and he travels in Rus’ country with a bunch of Viking invaders who apparently never met a Slavic settlement they could not plunder. But Björk’s midwife-viewer recognizes him as the lost prince and reminds him of his fate. When Amleth learns that Fjölnir was expelled from the empire he plundered and fled to a remote farming community in Iceland, Amleth embarks on a slave ship that was on its way there to supply labor.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays a fellow passenger who knows a good connection when she sees one. “I’m Olga from Birkeskoven,” she says initially, adding that even though he has the strength to break men’s bones, she has the cunning to break their minds. Both are hired on Fjölnir’s farm, where Olga gradually gains Amleth’s trust, and he reveals his plan to murder his uncle and save his mother, who he believes only pretends to love her abductor for the sake of their young son (Elliott Rose).
Eggers’ film has shared a fascination with the magical properties of animals – a goat in The witch (love you, Black Phillip), a damn seagull in The lighthouse. The occult fauna this time is wolf cubs and ravens, the former led Amleth to find a massive sword of the undead, known as The Night Blade; the latter get busy with their beaks when he is tortured and tied up late in the game.
The storytelling accelerates as Amleth gets closer to her goal, causing carnage among his uncle’s men and arousing fear of a “disturbed spirit” in their midst. The plot gets more frenetic, but it stays clear even if there are one or two bow moments that made me howl like a wolf.
Gudrún’s reunion with the son she long thought was dead should have been a moment of high drama. But it’s hard not to laugh when Kidman, wearing Daryl Hannah’s old curly hair from Splash and with the Natasha Fatale accent, she greets a mighty silver leaf in her throat with, “Your sword is long,” before engaging in some incestuous flirtation. When Fjölnir suffers a serious loss and shouts: “What evil is this ?!” Gudrún shoots him with a gaping look of death and snaps: “Behave!” as if she were a Nordic Austin Powers.
The romance between Amleth and Olga also has time to flourish under all this, complete with a post-coital respite in the woods right out of John Boormans Excalibur. There is also an interlude on a flying horse ridden by a fiery-eyed Valkyrie (Ineta Sliuzaite). But even though Amleth secures the continuation of his bloodline, his death agreement with Uncle Fjölnir remains at the “gates of hell”.
It would be the mouth of an active volcano, where they fight naked, as any self-respecting medieval warrior would do, even if their digitally erased penis makes them look like distracting Ken dolls. I may be wrong, but their smooth grooves in the lava light are more like the result of studio interference than caution on the part of the actors or of a director so keen to present a world suspended between life and legend in all its gross glory.
The film is shot by Eggers’ regular DP Jarin Blaschke, with restless momentum and with a textured feel for the dramatic landscapes, buzzing with rain, wind, snow and ice, or covered with mud and ash. The choreography of the fight scenes – both the staging and the recordings, in long, unbroken recordings – is weak-minded. Fully enclosing is also the dense sound design, with instruments from the Viking Age such as birch horns and bone flute heard together with the thundering elements and the fighting chaos.
The Norwegian is determined a lot of film, and while its hysterical intensity sometimes turns into excessive stupidity, it is both tireless and encouraging in its depiction of a culture governed by the cycles of violence. The coherence of Eggers’ vision arouses admiration, as does the commitment of his collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.
Skarsgård, who for more than a decade has worked on developing a film project rooted in his childhood love of Viking myths and stories, has never been tougher or more physically impressive. Taylor-Joy who got her started The witch, is seductive as Olga weaves baskets and plans chaos. (Her parents from the previous film, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, also appear.) Kidman is a tumbler juggling fire and ice in an enjoyable twist. And if anyone does not cast Bang as Bond-hostile or another appropriately exalted malicious soon, then Hollywood just is not paying attention.
Whether you shop into Eggers’ insane epic, get high on its blood-soaked sorcery, or roll your eyes at its excesses, the film makes you appreciate how rarely we get to see a big, noisy, striking play these days that doesn’t is based on comic book -hero superheroes and villains, but in culture-specific history. In other words, a work of daring imagination, not another offshoot of a familiar IP. That alone deserves respect.