Three features in, Robert Eggers has proven himself a filmmaker with a varied visual style and an obsession with recreating remote, long-ago settings in which people are driven crazy by the elements and by each other. Story-wise and image-wise, The Northman doesn't have much to do with Eggers's previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse. Yet with its cracked, "this is how people back then would have behaved" perspective, and its fascination with perverse mythology, it is very much of a piece with them.
Here Eggers adapts the source material for Shakespeare's Hamlet: In the year 895, young Viking prince Amleth sees his beloved father the king (Ethan Hawke) slain by the king's own brother (Claes Bang), who then kidnaps the queen (Nicole Kidman) and marries her. The prince escapes his uncle and vows revenge. Some twenty years later, Amleth, now played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, is part of a gang of berserkers laying siege to some poor village. (The Northman is not subtle in its depiction of Dark Ages brutality.) There he learns that his uncle is living in exile in Iceland, so Amleth disguises himself as a slave so that he may go to Iceland, save his mother, and kill the man who betrayed his family.
Along the way, Amleth gets himself a girlfriend (The Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy), commits dark deeds to drive his unwitting uncle mad, and smacks into a plot twist that shocks him thoroughly and an attentive audience member only partially. But as with Eggers's other films, story takes a backseat to atmosphere. He obviously loves to explore cultures of times past as a sort of insider, taking us along for the ride and telling us, "This is how I believe things really were back then – including the way people thought and spoke." (The Northman's dialogue is mostly in English; its international cast speaks with a generally Old Norse dialect.)
Is the film enjoyable? Not really, to be honest. It feels more like a rehash of Gladiator than it does Hamlet, and I'm not at a point where I want to watch any of Eggers's films more than once. But he's still an interesting filmmaker with a lot going on in his head, and his work certainly begs to be seen on the big screen.