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'The Northman' is a brutal revenge story marked by violence, vengeance and vastness

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "The Northman" is a Viking revenge saga starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy. It's the latest movie from the director Robert Eggers, who previously made the period dramas "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse." Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Back in 1958, "The Vikings," a lavish Hollywood production starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, sold itself in its trailer this way - nothing ever matched its violence, its vengeance, its vastness. Sixty-four years and countless Viking movies and TV series later, the mesmerizing new film "The Northman" takes up the challenge, and it has violence, vengeance and vastness to burn. Mostly set in 10th century Iceland, it tells the brutal story of Amleth, a young Viking prince who sets out to avenge his father's death at the hands of his uncle. If that sounds familiar, it's because this legend was the direct inspiration for Shakespeare's "Hamlet," and so you know Amleth's journey is destined to end in bloodshed and tragedy. But the director, Robert Eggers, who wrote the script with the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjon, has a few surprises up his sleeve.

The story begins on an island somewhere in the North Atlantic, where the king, played by a scraggly bearded Ethan Hawke, has returned home from conquests overseas. Not long after, the king is slain by his brother, Fjolnir, played by the terrific Danish actor Claes Bang. Before the fatal blow is delivered, the brothers exchange words, and their amusingly ornate dialogue gives you some sense of the heightened poetic register "The Northman" is aiming for.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

CLAES BANG: (As Fjolnir the Brotherless) Ye behold your brother's gaze in amazement. I knew well you would. Pity you never paid a bastard's eyes heed before. Now, behold how swiftly your brother swings his sword.

ETHAN HAWKE: (As King Aurvandil War-Raven) Strike, brother. Strike. But know that bearing a stolen ring makes no half-breed a king. Soaked in my blood, 'twill soon be sliding off your arm like a serpent. Your kingdom will not last.

CHANG: Amleth, who's just a boy at the time, witnesses the murder and barely escapes with his life, vowing to return later and kill his uncle. Decades pass, and Amleth is now played by the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, who tears into the role with a raw, feral hunger for which his part in the vampire series "True Blood" now feels like a warmup act. Years after fleeing home, Amleth has become a coldblooded killer, a berserker in Old Norse terms, raiding and plundering villages in Slavic territory. When he learns that his uncle Fjolnir has been dethroned and fled to Iceland, he decides it's payback time. And so he heads to Iceland and passes himself off as a slave working on Fjolnir's farm. But there are complications.

In keeping with "Hamlet," Fjolnir is now married to Gudrun, his brother's wife and Amleth's mother. Though she seems submissive at first, Gudrun turns out to be one of the movie's more fascinating creations - played by Nicole Kidman in her best performance in years. Meanwhile, Amleth finds a love interest and an ally in Olga, a fellow slave played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who starred in Edgar's first feature, "The Witch." If you've seen that movie or its follow-up, "The Lighthouse," the director's flair for period filmmaking will come as no surprise. Here he brings an ancient civilization to life with obsessive historical research and a staggering attention to detail. The filmmaking is as muscular as Skarsgard's frequently blood-caked torso. The combat scenes are intensely visceral, but they also play like ancient rituals, full of intricate choreography and filmed in long, unbroken takes by the cinematographer Jarin Blaschke.

But the movie, for all its concern for accuracy, is also wildly imaginative. Eggers fully embraces the mysticism of Old Norse legends and makes no effort to distinguish between fantasy and reality. There are witches and Valkyries and undead warriors, plus an oracle with a wacky headdress played by none other than Iceland's biggest superstar, Bjork. And if that isn't proof enough of Eggers' wry sense of humor, he's assembled a supporting cast of actors who aren't afraid to go enjoyably over the top and whose accents only sometimes land within spitting distance of Scandinavia.

That's not a knock. Eggers' movies, for all their craft and art film cred, have always had an irreverent streak. He's a great builder of worlds, but he also likes to dismantle those worlds from within. I loved his attack on Puritan repression in "The Witch" and his critique of blustery male ego in "The Lighthouse." In "The Northman," he both fulfills and questions the conventions of the revenge drama. Amleth may look like a righteous avenger on par with the warriors of "Conan The Barbarian," "Braveheart" and "Gladiator," but he also turns out to be a more misguided, more deluded hero than he appears. He's just one link in an endless chain of violence, though it's satisfying all the same to watch him lay claim to his destiny.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Northman."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be CNN anchor Zain Asher. Her new memoir is about her mother, a Nigerian immigrant who survived poverty, famine and civil war before coming to England to raise four children in a crime-ridden London neighborhood. She was tough at times, but the children did well - Asher's brother is actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN CAROLAN AND SEBASTIAN GAINSBOROUGH'S "THE LAND OF THE RUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.