If you like "Hamlet" but don't think enough heads get lopped off, then "The Northman" is the historical drama for you.
It's the kind of movie where Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman have an even more twisted relationship than they did on TV's "Big Little Lies." Where the performances are so super-sized that nutty Bjork is the calmest actor on-screen. Where naked Vikings do battle on an active volcano called the Gates of Hell. Where one marauder isn't satisfied with slaughtering five people so he puts a cherry on top of that murderous sundae by biting off a chunk of a sixth.
There's something to be said for subtlety, obviously, and there are character nuances in "Northman," which was inspired by the same Scandinavian tale on which William Shakespeare based "Hamlet." Unlike Shakespeare, "Northman" wonders if the late father of Hamlet — here, named Amleth and played by Skarsgård — was really such a great guy, and whether the uncle who became the protagonist's stepfather is evil or just a victim of Not-My-Real-Dad Syndrome.
These are compelling questions — and Robert Eggers' film gives the Ophelia character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy and named Olga, more agency than Shakespeare did. But the movie doesn't allot much time to ponder these themes as it caroms from one bold sequence to the next. There's nothing showy in the way "Northman" is assembled because Eggers ("The Lighthouse") knows the performances are so wild and the barren beauty of the Icelandic setting so spectacular that we don't need flashy camera work.
Set in the ninth and 10th centuries, the story is both strange and familiar. A king (Ethan Hawke) returns from battle but he's soon assassinated, with his wife (Kidman) marrying her late husband's brother (Claes Bang) and banishing her heartbroken boy, Amleth. Many years later — and a whole lot more ripped — he is played by Skarsgård, who worms his way back into the lives of his family while vowing, "I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill your brother."
He'll kill a lot more people than that. "Northman" is relentlessly brutal, but the violence feels appropriate for a world in which there aren't any rules and where "social change" comes at the sharpened edge of an ax. While Shakespeare's Hamlet is given to soliloquy, Amleth is more of an action man. But, like his predecessor, he can't bear this unjust world, with Amleth's "I will discover if living is to my liking" subbing in for Hamlet's "To be or not to be, that is the question."
It helps to be familiar with Shakespeare's work, since "Northman" gives us fresh perspective on "Hamlet" in the same way a visionary stage director can. You might also want to bone up on "Macbeth," since Kidman's vituperative queen incorporates some of that play's fury.
If you've ever wondered what is meant by the word "pillaging," "Northman" is your answer but in the end, like "Hamlet," it's really about a young man's trauma and the price he pays for trying to address it.
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R, for gruesome violence and partial nudity.
Where: Area theaters.