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Director Robert Eggers' new movie The Northman tells a familiar tale of treachery, murder and revenge, but in a brutally unfamiliar way. BILL WATT reports

What the hell did I just watch? Was it a bizarre documentary on the religious rites of the bloodthirsty Vikings, a Freudian study into mankind's inner beast or a more traditional tale of murder and revenge? The answer is probably a bit of all them, plus much more.

When I sat down to watch the new movie The Northman at the cinema I expected to see a swaggering Viking tale - a couple of hours of swordfights, death and destruction complete with a hero, love interests and surprising plot twists.

Instead, what I got was a weird mash-up of Hamlet, Lord Of The Flies and a lost tribes documentary, which, granted, came with ample swordfights, death and destruction, a love interest and a surprising plot twist (no spoilers).

The film is based on the ancient tale/myth of a Viking prince Amleth whose father the king is murdered by his brother (yes, Shakespeare's Hamlet owed something to this legend). Amleth then embarks on a long gory path of revenge, which reaches its climax in the barren majesty of Iceland.

However, at times the story takes a back seat to Norse mythology, religious rites and cultural analysis. Sometimes you expect David Attenborough to provide a voice over so we know what is happening. Goodness knows what the film watcher is meant to make of it all. What does your average adventure movie fan know of Yggdrasill the giant ash tree which embraces the universe?

And, recreating ancient cultural initiations can be fraught territory, especially if one of the said hallucinogenic-induced rites involves a man and a boy lapping a liquid out of a dog's bowl. Seriously, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

And, then there is the appearance of Icelandic music legend Björk as a witch. No, don't go there. Why was that necessary? Just because a large part of the film is set in Iceland doesn't mean Björk (pictured below) needs a role.

At one point the film (unfairly) reminded me of how old I am, when a scene of Viking berserkers preparing for a raid shot me straight back to a movie I'd watched in black and white TV in my teens ... Lord Of The Flies, where a group of kids stranded on a desert island regress to primitive barbarism. Believe me, I had not thought of that film in decades!

Of course, The Northman has a host of good points which have seen it garner many impressive reviews in the mainstream media as well as the internet. Here are a few:

  • It is a rollicking traditional tale of murder and revenge with a rousing finale;

  • It is beautifully filmed, with the Icelandic scenes especially stunning;

  • The historical, mythological and anthropological research is truly impressive;

  • The actors, including Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe, are all terrific (although an Oedipal-like scene featuring Nicole is a bit icky).

  • The costuming and special effects are fantastic.

So, overall, I actually really enjoyed the movie, but for the full two and a bit hours I was sort of aware my wife sitting next to me, wasn't really feeling the love for it.

And, when it came to a mate asking me whether I would recommend he and his wife go to the cinema to see it, I was honest ... "Best wait for a few months and watch it on Netflix".


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