At the end of Robert Eggers’ first movie, 2015’s “The Witch,” Anya Taylor-Joy’s character joins an eerie group of witches in the woods and — in a shocking and subversive moment — lifts off into the air, free from gender roles and gravity.
Unfortunately, Eggers’ third film, “The Northman,” never reaches its moment of flight. Despite efforts from the Valkyries and Odin’s ravens, this Viking action art piece is fettered to the ground by the demands of the studio gods.
In this third effort, Eggers is adapting a Viking tale that inspired “Hamlet,” but he has a bigger budget and bigger names (this is his first departure from indie mainstreamer A24, which produced “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”). With those armaments come more action, blood and guts, and — as Eggers has spoken about in interviews — more input from test audiences and studio execs (Focus Features).
These fit on Eggers’ filmmaking sensibility like a shirt of mail that’s too small. His other two movies are unpredictable and deeply weird. This one feels too foretold.
The first part of the movie is the most inspired: Eggers unfolds his mythic version of ninth- century Scandinavia like a Bayeux Tapestry, taking us through it section by section. A Viking king (Ethan Hawke) comes home from war to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and adolescent son, Amleth. Hawke is more than convincing as King Aurvendil, even until his murder at the hands of his brother Fjölnir (Danish actor Claes Bang), who wants the kingdom — and Kidman — for himself.
Amleth escapes with a promise of vengeance, and grows into a fearsome, wolfish ravager played by Alexander Skarsgård (who became famous playing vampire Eric Northman in HBO’s “True Blood,” leading enough people to Google “is ‘The Northman’ about Eric Northman” that it pops up in suggested searches).
While Skarsgård sells Amleth’s steely emptiness, he’s at times wooden when showing the animalistic rage the screenplay constantly tells us he feels. When he’s just standing there with nothing to do, he looks like an action figure who’s not being played with.
Skarsgård is a bit old for the role at 45, and it’s hard to forget Kidman, only nine years older, played his wife on HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” But Skarsgård isn’t at all the problem, and Kidman is certainly not. At the end of a second act that begins to sag, she revitalizes the story in a scene that should be in her career highlights reel. Taylor-Joy is back, trading her Puritan garb for the role of a Slavic sorceress, but now she’s hampered by an accent that feels both unplaceable and generic.
The script Eggers co-wrote with poet and novelist Sjón is so beautiful at moments that the one or two times when it drops from Eddaic turns of phrase into Hollywood clichés, it’s all the more jarring. While there were moments when my jaw dropped, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to rewatch it anytime soon.
If you want to see a Conan the Barbarian-ish Vikesploitation movie, this one is more immersive but less action-packed than you might want. If you want to see a medieval art film, watch last year’s “The Green Knight.”
If you want to watch a great Robert Eggers movie, go stream “The Witch.”