‘The Northman’ explores myth and legend

You cannot deny the brilliance of “The Northman” but when you compare the impact of Robert Eggers films like “The Witch” or “The Lighthouse” it seems he’s buried a pretty good film within the peaks and valleys of historical myth and legend.

Set in the 9th century “The Northman” unwinds with hints of “Hamlet” and “The Vikings” yet comes across as incredibly original due to the massive atmosphere provided by thatch hut villages set amongst Icelandic locations. Characters on the periphery get their day in court (Dafoe, Kidman, Joy) while the emphasis on leads Alexander Skarsgård and Claes Bang provides a big alpha male measuring contest.

This rivalry is accentuated with a reverent bow to “Women in Love” where the two men face off in a nude fight to the death with a thundering volcano in the background. (In Russell’s film the two men played by Alan Bates and Oliver Reed were merely wrestling nude in front of a fireplace.)

Skarsgård, first seen as a wee lad waltzing through the countryside with abandon, witnesses his father, the King (played by Ethan Hawke ) being killed by uncle Bang and his minions.

His mother, Nicole Kidman lit and photographed to emphasize her age although Kidman is the most preserved actress in decades, will later be revealed to be in league with her in-law. Meanwhile adult Skarsgård goes undercover as a slave in Bang’s reclusive community, a verdant valley where the owners and the workers are clearly defined. There’s even a bat-and-ball-game that seems to resemble a cross between baseball and quidditch.

A sequence where a flaming thatch-roofed cabin is burnt to the ground with the inhabitants banging against the walls best illustrates the kind of realism in which Eggers excels.

There are lavish highs in “The Northman.” It’s just that the downtime between magnificent set pieces loses the pacing and momentum Eggers seeks to maintain.

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