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► The Northman is in UK cinemas from April 15. 

Where the Hollywood historical epic traditionally ennobles the bloody exploits of its hero, The Northman – directed by Robert Eggers and written by Eggers and the Icelandic writer Sjón – unfolds a boomingly righteous revenge plot, only to pull a bait-and-switch.

Based on an ancient Norse legend, the literary ancestor of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the story starts out on familiar turf: twenty years after his beloved father and king, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), is betrayed by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has fashioned himself into a killing machine with a simple raison d’être: kill Fjölnir, avenge father, save mother.

Pathological as it is, his mission is portrayed sympathetically given the prologue’s staking-out of good and evil, with Fjölnir – the quintessential bastard son complete with raven-black hair and humorless scowl – pitted against the noble Aurvandil, who is doted upon by wife (Nicole Kidman) and child alike.  

The menace of inexorable fate looms large. Eggers and his regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke often shoot from a single point of view, with forward-lurching zooms and dolly shots reflecting Amleth’s one-track mind and predatory roving. Theirs is an immersive approach, and particularly effective in battle scenes where momentum meets brawny, bravura physicality, though also annoyingly reminiscent of role-playing video games and their first-person vantage points.

Our hero, a wild-eyed mutterer whom we first see in adulthood as a member of a formidable crew of Vikings, kills and pillages with unsettling zeal, with an impressively mounted raid upon a Slav village serving as an early showcase for his expertise in combat.

For his part, Skarsgård, who has always exhibited a kind of sadistic, feral quality, making him a particularly convincing domestic abuser in both Big Little Lies and Passing, goes fittingly berserk, matching the film’s death-metal moods, thunderously percussive score, and mythic flourishes (a bellow ringing out over a quivering volcano, like the voice of a raging deity; a screeching, pale-faced Valkyrie riding in hallucinatory slow-motion toward Valhalla).

Taking his reputation for obsessive concern with historical accuracy to the extreme, Eggers steeps the film in Scandinavian lore and pagan practices, with many painstakingly researched details – like props and accessories – destined to go unnoticed. But his approach’s biggest payoff, for the average viewer, at least, is the evocation of a fleshly and feverish reality that strikes beyond the conventional grooves and rituals of the swords-and-shields epic, with its various Christian, medieval trappings.

In The Northman, we see animal sacrifices and nude bodies splattered with blood; chopped limbs arranged into written warnings; tribal carousing before a bonfire, with men stomping and thrashing like deranged moshers. This is a world bristling with emotion and violence, where even the women, children, and dogs are on edge, prepared to put up a fight. 

A visit from Björk as an eyeless prophet, and news of Fjölnir’s whereabouts, prompts Almeth to pose as one of his uncle’s newly-purchased slaves, along with a platinum-blonde sorceress, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), with whom he shares a penchant for payback. “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she explains to him, “but I have the cunning to break their minds.” It’s a cringey line and a conscious effort to empower the film’s most prominent female character against a backdrop of macho brutality, but it also quite literally speaks to Olga’s contributions when she volunteers to help Almeth wreak havoc on Fjölnir’s humble fiefdom.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth and Anya Taylor Joy as Olga in The Northman
Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth and Anya Taylor Joy as Olga in The Northman
© Courtesy of Focus Features

A romance develops between the two co-conspirators, and Olga quickly evolves into the archetypal porcelain dream-woman, a memory-image for the hero to pine over, like Liv Tyler’s Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, or Lena Headey’s Spartan queen in 300 (a film to which the The Northman, in occasional bouts of sleek stylisation, bears unfortunate parallels). 

But the film’s pivot to tragedy stings far greater than the glorified displays of masculine sacrifice that conclude blockbusters like 300 or Gladiator before it. In The Northman, a bitter revelation causes a crucial change in perspective, recalibrating past events – a dirty joke from the court jester (Willem Dafoe), a private conversation between Aurvandil and his queen – for the audience, if not for Amleth, who continues the warpath despite an opportunity for salvation.

That the violent heroics of men are ultimately the actions of deluded beasts, intoxicated by fairytales of honor and duty, is an evergreen proposition, and kudos to a film that manages to convey these sentiments while simultaneously stoking the fairytale so viscerally. Eggers, who has rightfully called The Northman his most “commercial” film, may have loftier ambitions, but a touch like his might do the big-screen blockbuster a great deal of good.