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Review: Robert Eggers goes big with Viking epic ‘The Northman’

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By Connor Dziawura

Audiences looking to “The Northman” for an action-packed blockbuster may not find exactly what they’re expecting. Fans of the visionary filmmaker behind the ambitious Viking epic, however, will likely have an idea of what they’re in for.

In a profile published in the April 4 issue of The New Yorker, writer-director Robert Eggers admitted to troubles with poor initial test screenings that resulted in cuts being made. The feature spread around social media, with concerns raised about the idea of studio pressure and how changes might reflect in the final cut.

Fortunately, “The Northman” still feels born out of the filmmaker’s mind. Full of brutal, bloody violence and large set pieces, the 137-minute film sits somewhere between the high-octane action teased in its trailers and the more deliberately paced historical art house stylings of his past works.

Co-penned by Icelandic writer Sjón and based on Scandinavian legend, the engrossing tale stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince who embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, save his mother, and earn back the kingdom that is rightfully his.

Skarsgård, however, is just one piece of a larger ensemble cast. Ethan Hawke plays Amleth’s father, King Aurvandil, beside Nicole Kidman in the role of Queen Gudrún. Claes Bang is Amleth’s villainous uncle, Fjölnir. Anya Taylor-Joy, who previously worked with Eggers on 2015’s “The Witch,” reteams with him as Olga of the Birch Forest, a slave Amleth befriends on his journey. Willem Dafoe, who starred in Eggers’ 2019 film “The Lighthouse,” and Björk, in her first acting role in 17 years, also make brief appearances as Heimir the Fool and the Seeress, respectively.

It’s the largest cast Eggers has assembled to date. Skarsgård is vicious as the betrayed Amleth, and the film is successful at depicting a world on screen, though it can admittedly be distracting at times seeing big-name co-stars like Hawke, Kidman and Taylor-Joy attempting their characters’ accents.

At a reported $90 million, it’s also the filmmaker’s largest film in scale. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” in contrast, were centered around smaller, more intimate stories.

And the higher budget of “The Northman” shows, from its on-location filming in sweeping landscapes and its brutal scenes of the pillaging of conquered villages to the vivid colors of the northern lights and surreal, mystical visions.

With how detail oriented Eggers is known to be in his research, repeat viewings of “The Northman” may be especially rewarding. The film avoids overly explaining Norse culture in favor of simply showing. From the rituals characters perform to the costuming they wear, there’s much to unpack, which on first viewing takes a back seat to letting the experience wash over oneself.

With a story of vengeance as old as time, culminating in an explosive finale, “The Northman” may be the most commercial effort Eggers has helmed thus far, but having some semblance of accessibility doesn’t feel like it comes at the sacrifice of his vision.

“The Northman” opens in theaters Friday, April 22.

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