IN The witch and The lighthouse, Robert Eggers carefully built worlds based on ancient folklore and mythology to explore themes of isolation, masculinity, and societal expectation. These wildly imaginative interpretations of genre attracted the attention of both critics and audiences, leading to great anticipation for the director’s next project. But as Eggers’ first foray into action blockbuster filmmaking, The Norwegian has led to a few reservations about yet another little indie director running into a tough post-production process for a blockbuster project. Although it occasionally clings to the plot elements of its bloody tale of revenge, the result mostly alleviates this fear by creating a brutal and mysterious world filled with Viking rituals, witches and prophecies.
The story of co-authors Eggers and Sjón is perhaps an acquaintance. It takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamletwhich is itself based on Saxo Grammaticus’ Life Hamlet, a Danish legend who follows a northerner’s quest for revenge. In the film, a young prince named Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his beloved father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and claim the kingdom with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) ). Due to the Viking duty, Amleth has her sole purpose of avenging her father, rescuing her mother and murdering her uncle, and repeating her mission as a mantra and promise to the gods. Now a man, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker who plunders and plunders lands for various kings and nobles. He receives a prophecy from the viewer (Björk) who sets him on his journey of revenge.
The wild nature of The Norwegian is a welcome departure from the softened violence of many modern blockbusters. The film exists in a world where beheading and mutilation are a way of life, and to live honorably means to die on the battlefield. Amleth and Aurvandill participate in an inauguration ritual, where they crawl on all fours and howl like wolves, while the berserkers dance into a trance-like state and summon the bear spirit before battle. The visual style is so potent that one can almost smell the muddy bodies smelling of dry sweat and blood, while the bone-chilling battle cries and scores of composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough contribute to an experience that oscillates between overwhelming intensity and joking beauty. Intricate tracking images capture the rage of the berserkers in a village attack scene and follow Amleth as he sneaks through Fjölnir’s farm with murderous intent. All this culminates in a detailed and embodied depiction of the brutality of Viking life.
While Eggers’ precise vision is commendable, Amleth’s actual journey is pretty straightforward. In his two previous films, Eggers excelled when he mostly carved plot elements in favor of hardly the fine details in the language and design of the frames. Like a revenge story, The Norwegian is somewhat limited to following a fixed story, and sometimes makes it feel the need to explain even the more cryptic events happening on screen. The formula plot becomes clearer as Amleth is at times a difficult character to root for. This is partly due to the almost impossible task that Skarsgård has in showing the soul behind Amleth’s rage and the atrocities he commits.
But the film’s strength lies in highlighting the tragedy of Amleth’s devotion to taking revenge for only a fading memory of his deceased father. As an orphan, he is both incapable and resistant to overcoming his trauma, as his upbringing allows him only a single tear to mourn over his father’s death. Through his themes of masculinity, The Norwegian avoids glorifying its violence by instead portraying a man who has it as his only tool to process his pent-up emotions.
Much of the film’s soul comes from Amleth’s lover Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who gives Amleth someone to lose as he continues his death-defying quest. While he plans to murder Fjölnir, she shows him a tenderness that stands in stark contrast to the emotionless Viking life. Unfortunately, the film is too dependent on her to give Amleth more tangible emotions, and it refers her to a character defined only by her relationship with the fallen prince. Queen Gudrún does better as her dismembered speech challenges Amleth’s ideas of honor and glory, complicating his desire for revenge with a pursuit of a real future.
Overall, The Norwegian is impressive in its visceral filmmaking. It encourages analysis and at the same time delivers an entertaining action epic. Although there are a few setbacks in its rudimentary plot, Eggers has made a studio film with equal amounts of fun, artistic and thematic substance. It’s a shining example of what blockbuster movies can be, and hopefully it’s a sign that studies are taking more risks in the future.
The Norwegian opens in theaters on April 22nd. Watch the full trailer here.