June 12, 2022 The Northman (Movie Review)
Despite being a relative newcomer, Robert Eggers has quickly established himself as one of the most unique and interesting filmmakers in Hollywood. Debuting in 2015 with The Witch, and following that with 2019’s The Lighthouse, Eggers had made a name for himself using striking visuals, palpable foreboding, and historically accurate settings to weave dark, often supernatural elements into the lives of his characters. He continues this trend with his latest film, The Northman; a classic revenge tale set amidst the brutal, unstable world of the Vikings in 10th-century Iceland.
Released on Digital June 6, 2022 as well as on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and DVD June 7th the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, the story of The Northman is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth; a folk hero with a similar story to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In this legend, the Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård – True Blood series, Big Little Lies series) is a prince and heir to King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke – Before Sunrise 1995, Training Day 2011), who is betrayed and murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang – The Affair 2019, The Outlaws series). The young prince escapes the ensuing chaos and sets out into the unknown, repeating a mantra of revenge that will define the rest of life. The set up is one we have all seen plenty of times before, but the journey that paints the picture is where Eggers’ talents shine. The cinematography is excellent, the set designs are raw and engaging, and the use of Scandinavian folklore throughout is authentic, if maybe a bit too obscure at times for the casual viewer.
The story of Amleth does differ from some traditional hero tales in several ways, however. One of those is the kind of hero Amleth is. He is very much a product of his environment and Vikings are generally not nice people to put it mildly. Pillaging, murder, rape; all par for the course in Viking culture and Amleth is no different. Attacks by marauders are absolutely ruthless, and Amleth not breaking away from that heinous lifestyle and even reveling in it will affect the way many viewers feel about him. Sure, everyone loves a good revenge story, but we generally don’t see the end justifying the means in such tales. The Northman has no such pretenses about nobility. In this world, the only virtues are strength through conquest and the preservation of honor.
The aforementioned violence is a major part of this story and The Northman by far the most brutal of Eggers three films. While The Witch and The Lighthouse had their moments, it was carefully used and contextual for the most part. Here the violence is wanton. Coupled with the near complete apathy for life and the never-ending power struggle of the leaders of the time, it becomes a constant threat for the viewers.
In truth, it is hard to imagine anyone else portray Amleth other than Alexander Skarsgård. Tall and chiseled like a statue, Amleth makes for an imposing figure when even when humble, and is the embodiment of Viking terror when he is at war. There is a scene where he is partaking in a pre-raid ritual with his fellow berserker warriors that shows them working themselves up into a frenzy, and the madness in Amleth’s eyes is truly frightening. He never wavers from his oath and mission, which is both good and bad for him.
The supporting cast includes Anya Taylor Joy (Split 2015, Glass 2019) as Olga of the Birch Forest, working with Eggers again after she starred in The Witch. Then you have Claes Bang playing the arrogant, power hungry villain Fjölnir perfectly. He is also nothing to scoff at in the fighting department, even for the mighty Amleth.
There is also Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut 1999, The Others 2001), who plays Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrun. Some folks were skeptical about her casting but those people forget how good she really is. She has probably the best performance in the film, which is taking nothing away from the others. Without giving too much away, Gudrun is not exactly helpless and is a much more complex character than a damsel in distress. Kidman is a great actress and brings those complexities to life starkly, especially toward the climax of the film. Also of note is The Seeress, played by Icelandic Musician/Actress Björk. She does not have much screen time, but her costumes and makeup are great, and she is enchanting during the time she has.
Eggers is also known for his attention to detail and authenticity, and it certainly seems this is still the case in The Northman. The film is awash in Scandinavian mythological imagery, much of which may be obscure to most of the audience. There are sure to be YouTube videos from those who are knowledgeable about these things for those who want to know more, but the obscurity is part of what makes this journey as tense as it is. The pagan rituals, the prophecies of The Seeress, the unfamiliar sense of family and honor – all of those things and more combine to ensure that the viewer never feels safe or sure.
The Northman may require a second viewing to truly take it in because the first may be a little too discombobulated for some. However, the cinematography and performances are top notch and should get the more exasperated viewers over the hump. Overall, The Northman provides excellent action, a satisfying story, and impressive visuals wrapped in a package that is hard to digest, but worth the time. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.