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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Eggers’

There’s something oddly familiar about the opening sequence of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was: smoke belches from the bowels of the earth into an ominous sky, thunder rumbles, and a gravelly-to-the-point-of-being-impossible-to-understand voice-over proclaims we are about the hear the legendary story of a prince and his quest for a terrible revenge in a long-past mystic era…

And I was a bit thrown when a thunderously bombastic Basil Poledouris score didn’t crash in and drive the movie on through the opening credits (like an increasing number of modern movies, it doesn’t even have a title card until the very end). The opening of The Northman recreates the beginning of John Milius’ version of Conan the Barbarian so carefully that it doesn’t seem possible that this is a coincidence – in fact, you could argue that in some ways this is the most authentic recreation of the original Conan stories brought to the screen for many years, right down to individual scenes recreating moments from the text (provided you ignore the fact the film has no explicit links to Robert E Howard’s creation and is specifically set in a different time and place).

Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandill War-Raven, a Dark Ages king from modern Norway, who is knocking on enough to be thinking about the succession issues that will inevitably occur when he eventually takes an axe to the guts he just can’t walk away from (it comes to us all eventually). He duly takes his young son Amleth down into the cavern beneath the local shrine to Odin where, together with Willem Defoe, they put on leather shorts and bark like dogs for a while (this is by no means the last unexpectedly startling scene in the movie). It turns out that Aurvandill was right to be concerned, as not long after he is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who seizes the title and also his brother’s widow (Nicole Kidman).

Well, the only option left for young Amleth is to swear to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his uncle, and make his escape across the North Sea by rowing boat until he’s big and strong enough to mount a decent roaring rampage of revenge. He ends up, as luck would have it, somewhere in eastern Europe, becoming a member of a band of berserker warriors and turning into the strapping figure of Alexander Skarsgard somewhere along the way.

All the howling at the moon and tearing people’s throats out with his teeth seems to have distracted Amleth from his oath of vengeance, but luckily a passing seeress with a very impressive hat made of corn (she is played by Bjork, who may well have provided her own costume) reminds him of the destiny that awaits him, and obliging reveals that Fjolnir has been booted out of Norway and settled down in Iceland. Instantly deciding to get on with the whole avenging deal – in fact, so instantly one is almost inclined to raise an eyebrow, but there are many things about The Northman you just have to sit back and go with – Amleth sneaks aboard a boat taking slaves off to Iceland, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not just a slave but also a Slav. However, etymology is not key amongst the topics they discuss during the trip, just her potential usefulness to his plans and the prospects for a Scandi-Slav hook-up before the movie is over…

As you can perhaps tell, this is the kind of historical epic that Hollywood used to regularly make not very well, frequently starring people like Tony Curtis or Alan Ladd. Those old movies tended to be enjoyable only as pieces of camp; The Northman is a bit melodramatic in places but in general it seems to expect to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is possible is another question – it’s certainly an impressive-looking and powerfully atmospheric movie but in its best moments it is so outrageously and concertedly over-the-top it can be a little difficult to keep a straight face while watching it.

The on-the-ball reader will already have figured out that the legend of Amleth, his dead father and his usurping uncle has already inspired not just Hamlet but also The Lion King, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a bold new story idea here (although the treatment is obviously different – ‘to behead or not to behead, that is the question’). However, in many ways the story structure keeps on ringing bells – the treatment of a pagan, viscerally brutal world is powerful, but the underlying narrative keeps on hitting very traditional beats. Supporters of the film will probably say that this is the point – it’s an archetypal story drawing on the same folk-legends that have inspired many previous writers (Robert E Howard amongst them). Nevertheless, I think it’s a shame that a film which is obviously the work of people with real vision and creativity should also be quite so predictable.

That said, the kind of audience that seems most likely to respond to The Northman probably won’t be going along in search of great narrative subtleties. Anyone without much of an appetite for crunching violence, heavy gore, and frequent mutilation may find the film tough going, for all that the film also has visual imagination in spades. Eggers himself was apparently a bit concerned before taking the project on that the film would tap into too many stereotypes of white supremacist culture: a particularly bonkers flavour of Caucasian hetero-normativity.

Certainly the film is striking in its adherence to a particular vision of life in the Dark Ages. All the things that usually get slipped into this kind of film when they’re made by a big studio are absent – there’s no comedy relief, no attempt to import modern sensibilities or present past cultures as somehow analogous to modern societies. This is the sort of thing that almost sounds logical, given we’re talking about a historical drama, but it marks The Northman out as niche rather than mainstream entertainment, and potentially controversial entertainment at that.

Let’s just say it likely has cult status in its future. There is a lot here to enjoy – Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in ages, and the rest of the cast are also strong; the action is often superbly mounted; and Eggers creates a coherent and convincing world for the story to unfold in. It’s just that it’s all a little bit too predictable, almost coming across as another headbangingly macho action movie even though it’s clear that Eggers has slightly more elevated concerns. In the end there remains a question mark over whether it’s possible to take The Northman seriously as a drama, given the setting and the subject matter. Some people may be able to – but I’m not sure I can, at least not completely. But I did have a good time watching it.

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As they say in Rome, ‘After a fat Pope, a thin Pope’ – another of those weeks where everyone in the film releasing business seems to be keeping their powder dry. Still, some intriguing prospects on the horizon, amongst them Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which gets a surprisingly wide UK release this weekend (we shall return to this topic). This is one of those movies I’ve heard various positive things about, not least from Ex-Next Desk Colleague (all things must pass). ‘You’ll love it,’ was his confident assertion. Well, that’s possibly putting it a bit too strong, but I am certainly very impressed.

The film takes place almost entirely on a remote and barren island, somewhere off the New England coast, many years ago. Posted here to maintain and operate the lighthouse are two men: one of them (Robert Pattinson) is on his first tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper – he is intense, quiet, eager to prove himself. The other man (Willem Dafoe) is much older and more experienced; he is also garrulous, demanding, and often crude. There is friction between the duo almost at once, not least because the old man will not allow his younger colleague into the lamp room, although he refuses to reveal why.

The time passes slowly. The younger man finds a carving of a mermaid left by one of the previous keepers. He also begins to have odd visions, amongst them ones of the older man getting up to very strange things in the lamp room after dark. As the days add up and the weather gets worse and worse, isolation takes its toll. But is it all in his head or is there some grotesque inhuman force really at work on the island?

It’s honestly very difficult to give a proper impression of what The Lighthouse is really like to watch. The glib thing to say, which I’m not sure I didn’t read somewhere else, is that it is rather like how Steptoe and Son might have turned out, had the series been written by H. P. Lovecraft: it has two men of different generations trapped together in a toxic, co-dependent relationship, but also an insidiously creepy atmosphere and the suggestion of something fishy going on between people and, well, fish (or other forms of marine life). I mean this as a compliment, by the way, but when you take two such distinctive flavours and blend them together, you’re inevitably going to end up with something, um, distinctively distinctive.

Eggers, who wrote and directed the piece, doesn’t seem at all cowed by this, and doing something a bit different seems to have been part of his intention. The movie is as stark and austere as only black-and-white can be – on top of this, the director has opted to use a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, giving it even more the look of a film from the earliest years of cinema. All of this would normally scream art-house darling, and I am honestly surprised it has managed to land a significant release in mainstream cinemas – but then again, I am probably underestimating the box-office clout of Robert Pattinson.

As with Kristen Stewart, I would suggest that the statute of limitations has expired and we should accept that Pattinson is actually a very able actor and an impressive screen presence, regardless of how he started his career. Certainly he also seems happy to take on challenging projects – whatever else you think about it, the ickily pretentious sci-fi movie High Life from last year was hardly a commercial choice, and you could say the same about this one, too. Every genre movie that Pattinson signs on for seems to mutate into something unexpected and disturbing. Which inevitably leads one to wonder, now that Pattinson (or at least his chin) has signed up to play Batman: how on Earth is that going to work out?

This, of course, is a question for another day. Underneath the period trappings and strange stylistic quirks, The Lighthouse is at heart a horror movie, although saying much more about it is a little tricky. Certainly the most striking moments in it come from the suggestion that something genuinely unnatural and perhaps even mythic is going on: this is one of those movies where not a great deal is explained, but it does seem to be loaded with moments alluding to Greek myth and classic literature. Pattinson has visions of a mermaid, for one thing, while those looking to make the Lovecraft connection will find the appearance of tentacles in unlikely places to be of great significance.

On the other hand, it could just all be a symptom of creeping madness brought on by a combination of factors: isolation, stress, perhaps also guilt. I have to reiterate just how atmospheric The Lighthouse is: a foghorn bleats repetitively on the soundtrack, adding to the sounds of the elements, while you are left with no doubts as to just how bleak and unpleasant the island the keepers are on is. Apparently the cast and crew had a fairly wretched time just making the movie there – I suspect there was not a lot of acting required for many of the scenes.

When the acting is required, however, both Pattinson and Defoe certainly do the business. I suppose we can say that both of them deliver bold, vanity-free performances. Pattinson is playing the point-of-identification character, to begin with at least, but as the film goes on introduces elements of mania into his character quite cleverly and subtly: he goes from being sympathetic to rather alarming almost seamlessly. It initially looks like Defoe has been given quite a ripe old character part, complete with beard and thick accent, but the actor manages to find depth and reality as well, while retaining the edge of ambiguity that the film really requires in order to work. And work it does.

Of course, the thing about The Lighthouse, being a film about madness (and often violent madness at that) is that it does end up being an unreliable narrative. The story comes unglued just as the characters do, and in the end it’s left up to the viewer to work out just what has really been going on in front of them. But the film is impressive and memorable enough for this to be a welcome challenge rather than a chore. This is a movie with some extreme moments, and it certainly won’t be to all tastes, but I found its ambition and focus to be highly laudable. A good omen for the year’s horror movies.

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