Synopsis – From acclaimed director Robert Eggers, The Northman is an epic revenge thriller that explores how far a Viking prince will go to seek justice for his murdered father.
My Take – After leaving a strong and surreal mark with two incredibly low budgeted brilliant art house motion pictures in the form of The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), anyone would have expected filmmaker Robert Eggers to continue down the same path. But instead he surprised everyone by securing a hefty budget ($70–90 million) to tell a dark, brutal and violent Viking tale firmly rooted in his artistic stylings, but with enough barbarity, spectacle and attention to intensely entertain on the big screen.
Written in collaboration with Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist, and screenwriter Sjón, director Eggers‘s third film is a visually stunning ancient saga of redemption and revenge that is based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Shakespeare‘s Hamlet.
An unflinching epic of fire and ice, and of burning love and cold-served vengeance, this exceptionally crafted film is truly breathtaking in its scope, detail, and completely immersive quality. You don’t doubt for a second that you are in 10th-century Iceland, where the film is mostly set.
There is graphic violence and dark moments all over the film, crosses barriers between the real and the supernatural, and delivers all of the action you would want, with director Eggers only further elevating it status by giving it a truly original, artistic bent. Making the end result an unusually perfect blend of art house and blockbuster cinema.
Opening in 895 AD, the story follows Amleth (Oscar Novak), the 10-year-old son of King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) who sees his father return from a campaign of conquest to his fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey to him and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Deciding that Amleth is ready to begin preparations for him to eventually inherit the throne, Aurvandill takes him through a ritual led by Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe).
But as soon as the young boy sees his father murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also seizes Gudrún and calls for the death of Amleth. Managing to flee by sea in a small boat, vowing to enact his revenge on Fjölnir and rescue his mother, twenty years later, an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is now a near-bestial member of a Viking berserker party raiding and pillaging Slavic towns in Eastern Europe.
But after being reminded in a vision by a Seeress (Björk) of his promise, Amleth discovers that his uncle now presides over a large farm in Iceland and infiltrates a group of captured slaves being sent to Fjölnir’s land. Where with the help of an alluring, enigmatic Slavic sorceress slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth carefully maps out his vengeance.
The rest of the film sees Amleth finding his way back through vengeance and recovering meaning in his own life after losing not only himself but the meaning behind his survival. This is a triumphant effort from director Eggers to tell a more mainstream narrative while keeping in tune with his distinct style.
Those who have seen director Eggers’s previous work know that he is partial to graphic, surreal imagery carefully constructed to be as evocative as possible. And brings some of that to his epic, giving his characters striking visions that lead to a beautifully unique cinematic experience. At the same time, he crafts a story of vengeance that serves the characters very well. Amleth’s words, “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir,” echo through the screen.
Sure, it’s also a timeworn tale, and perhaps the only weakness in director Eggers’ otherwise remarkably fleshed out, often gripping film is that the narrative is an overly familiar one, right down to the last minute unsurprising reveal. But while the story’s inevitability might make the film feel long as it inches towards its conclusion, director Eggers’ incredible mastery of atmosphere, tone, and imagery keeps the film solidly entertaining.
His penchant for hewing close to history when constructing these time-lost settings pays off once again. For a film so occupied with intangible and fantastical concepts–the gods, fate, destiny–it remains refreshingly grounded and tactile.
Yes, we see men rise from the dead, gods made manifest, and an unforgettable naked sword fight at the base of a volcano, but despite a few instances of obvious CGI, the costumes, landscapes, and structures offer the texture necessary for transporting viewers to this 10th century setting. The windswept, desolate, eerily majestic landscapes of Iceland fill one’s eyes continuously while the stylized sequences of plunder, battle, and even gaming (with all three blending into each other in terms of their violent nature) are strikingly lit and choreographed.
While the film’s focus isn’t the action, the film features some of the most gripping battle sequences of the year. There are long takes with copious amounts of bloody, brutal violence that can be shocking. The barbarity of every insane fight scene matches the fierce nature of the Vikings and demonstrates the strength of Amleth as he embarks on his plan of vengeance.
Without a doubt the cast is also incredible. Alexander Skarsgård, who had earlier shown his physical prowess in The Legend of Tarzan (2016), outshines himself here. It’s one of those unforgettable performances that seems bound to be iconic. Packing loads of muscle onto his already imposing frame, Skarsgård’s Amleth is a terrifying hero. Nicole Kidman initially seemed like an odd piece of casting, but her chemistry with Skarsgård, reminiscent of the HBO series Big Little Lies, benefits the second half of the film when her performance starts to truly take shape.
Anya Taylor-Joy continues to outdo herself as an actress and Claes Bang makes for an intriguing complex villain. Gustav Lindh and Ralph Ineson leave mark, while Ethan Hawke, Kate Dickie and Björk are memorable in small roles. However one does wish that the incomparable Willem Dafoe had more screen time. On the whole, ‘The Northman’ is a bloody and visually stunning Viking epic that is brutal and intensely entertaining.
Directed – Robert Eggers
Rated – R
Run Time – 137 minutes