The Northman (15, 136 mins)
Verdict: Unrelentingly bleak
The Lost City (12A, 112 mins)
Verdict: Formulaic but fun
The old Norse story that supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet is dramatised in a film so enveloped in gloom, so brutalised by violence, that I was mightily surprised to be reminded of the TV light entertainment show Stars In Their Eyes.
But when a callow boy prince rows away from his forbidding Icelandic homeland having watched his father decapitated by his uncle, then returns years later, emerging through swirling fog as the ruthless avenger, bulging of bicep and dead of eye, I couldn’t help but think of those sliding doors of blessed Saturday-night memory. ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be . . . The Northman.’
The director is Robert Eggers, whose previous two features, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), mean that The Northman completes what we might call his definite-article trilogy.
The old Norse story that supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet is dramatised in a film so enveloped in gloom, so brutalised by violence, that I was mightily surprised to be reminded of the TV light entertainment show Stars In Their Eyes
The three films also have in common a dearth of anything that might be even vaguely construed as amusement, though I did quite enjoy a scene in The Northman in which our returning hero, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), engages in tenth-century Iceland’s most popular spectator sport, a hybrid of rugby league, shinty and aggravated assault. Sky should snap up the global TV rights.
Having witnessed his abruptly widowed mother (Nicole Kidman) being carried off by his uncle (Claes Bang), Amleth, posing as a Slavic slave, is hell-bent on rescuing her and punishing those who murdered his father (Ethan Hawke). That she might not want any kind of rescuing, let alone of the hell-bent variety, does not occur to him.
In truth, thinking is not something at which Amleth excels, though he does take a break from ripping out enemy entrails and ululating like a wolf in order to fall in love with a fellow slave (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has a nifty line in pillow-talk (‘my earth magic will stoke the flames of your sword’) and goes by the catchy name of Olga of the Birch Forest.
If I might briefly re-style myself Brian of the Second-Row Seat, it’s always a pleasure to watch Taylor-Joy act, especially in a period setting.
Her face seems to fit every century but our own, though of course she can do that, too. Indeed, with Willem Dafoe cavorting as an audacious court jester, plainly influenced by the Fool in King Lear, and Bjork popping up as a mystic in a wheat-sheaf headdress, looking almost as weird as one of her own album covers, there are nearly as many reasons to watch The Northman as there are to avert your eyes from it.
But some of the violence is truly sickening. It’s reasonable to assume there was a fair amount of raping and pillaging in the Icelandic Dark Ages, but the director does not spare us. He over-Eggers it, I’m sorry to say.
As in The Witch, he also indulges his fondness for the supernatural. In a way, this is fitting in a depiction of a land so immersed in myth and legend. Grunting ogres, living skulls, white horses flying upwards to Valhalla, give or take a troll under a bridge it’s all there, while cinematographer Jarin Blaschke makes the absolute most of the volcanic landscape.
In fairness, too, there are a few genuinely riveting scenes, none more than when Amleth reveals himself to his mother, an encounter loaded with uneasy, incestuous tension, and you have to remind yourself that Kidman, eyes ablaze, was last seen on screen as Lucille Ball. If there were an award for Most Versatile Actress Despite Overdoing The Botox, she would land it every year. Yet for all its virtues The Northman is an unrelentingly bleak spectacle, nobody’s idea of a fun night out.
The Lost City might tick that box, if you don’t mind a rehash of Romancing The Stone (1984) and can believe in a thunderously miscast Daniel Radcliffe as a villainous English media tycoon, even though he exudes as much menace as a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Sandra Bullock plays romance novelist Loretta Sage, kidnapped and taken to a ‘forgotten’ Atlantic island so that she might help Radcliffe’s baddie find a priceless ancient artefact.
Channing Tatum plays Alan, the dishy-but-dim model who features on Loretta’s book covers as her fictional hero, Dash, and now intends to make life replicate art by saving her.
Bullock and Tatum have an easy, winning chemistry, and Brad Pitt steals the few scenes he has as an alpha-male tracker, but the script is uneven, working too hard too often for the laughs.
They do sporadically arrive — though no thanks to the former Harry Potter star, whose celebrity continues to obscure the unfortunate truth that his acting range, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s famous line about Katharine Hepburn, runs the entire gamut from A to B.
The Lost City might tick that box, if you don’t mind a rehash of Romancing The Stone (1984) and can believe in a thunderously miscast Daniel Radcliffe as a villainous English media tycoon, even though he exudes as much menace as a ham-and-cheese sandwich
Gripping tale with stiff upper lips galore!
Operation Mincemeat (12A, 128 mins)
Verdict: A ripping yarn
A 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was, first told the compelling true story of a feat of wartime subterfuge like no other, whereby British Intelligence used a corpse to hoodwink the Germans into thinking that, in the pivotal summer of 1943, Allied Forces would invade the European mainland through Greece rather than Sicily.
Now, Operation Mincemeat re-tells the same story, but, inspired by Ben Macintyre’s bestseller of the same name, it contains more facts than were known 66 years ago — principally that the dead body, dropped off the Spanish coast bearing fake papers, was really that of a Welsh tramp called Glyndwr Michael, who had died after eating rat poison.
In death he became Major Bill Martin of the Royal Marines, and a trio of intelligence officers, all sporting the same stiff upper lip whether under a moustache or not, concocted a back story that would convince Nazi spies of his authenticity.
Operation Mincemeat rattles along like a thriller with an ending we can’t be sure of, even though we are. Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu
The three men are Ewen Montagu, Charles Cholmondeley and future James Bond creator Ian Fleming, respectively and very nicely played by Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen and Johnny Flynn.
A tip-top supporting cast also features Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill, Jason Isaacs as intelligence chief Admiral Godfrey, plus Penelope Wilton, Kelly Macdonald, Mark Gatiss, Alex Jennings and Hattie Morahan.
It’s a truly ripping yarn, to use period vernacular, to which John Madden’s film mostly does proper justice. It’s not perfect; a subplot in which Montagu and Cholmondeley both fall for the same woman, Macdonald’s MI5 secretary Jean Leslie, feels like a duff note in a story that hardly needs contrivances forced on it.
But that and a few other small gripes aside, Operation Mincemeat rattles along like a thriller with an ending we can’t be sure of, even though we are. And might it be that Flynn’s dashing performance as Fleming puts him in the frame to be the next 007?
That would be a nice final twist to a story that has plenty of them already.
A longer review of Operation Mincemeat ran in Monday’s paper.
I first saw Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta (★★✩✩✩, 18, 131 mins) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Dutch writer-director is greatly admired there, but his French-language movie got a mixed reception — rightly so.
It veers between soft porn and Carry On Up The Nunnery in its telling of the supposedly true story of Sister Benedetta (Virginie Efira), who is revered for her apparent hotline to the Almighty, but is punished for a love affair with another nun.
With Charlotte Rampling as a mother extremely superior and cinematography that makes every other frame look like a Rembrandt, Benedetta would be a wimple-tastic new entry in the peculiar new genre of period lesbian drama (Ammonite etc) if it weren’t so melodramatic.