Published on April 29th, 2022 | by Keegan Barker0
Robert Eggers continues to build on his brilliant, esoteric, and difficult to some, film canon with his take on Hamlet and Vikings in The Northman.
After the success of The VVitch and The Lighthouse, high expectations were placed on the next Robert Eggers film.
The Northman is a thunderous third entry into Eggers’ feature filmography, with intense and transformative performances, haunting and thick atmosphere, and surrealistic moments that elevate a medieval blood-and-guts rampage to the upper echelon of cinema.
On paper, The Northman is a retelling of one of humanity’s oldest tales. The film tells the story of Amleth (our proto-Hamlet), a young Norse prince whose father, King Aurvandill, is killed by Amleth’s uncle, Fjolnir. With his kingdom usurped and his mother taken as Fjolnir’s new bride, Amleth escapes into exile and pledges himself to avenging his father, saving his mother and slaying his uncle. Decades later, Amleth is a Viking berserker raiding in Eastern Europe. However, fate has given him the opportunity to exact his revenge on the man who took his father and kingdom from him.
When the movie started, I began to get a tad worried about where I predicted the plot would go. Like I said, this archetypal story is as old as storytelling, so I felt like the film was telegraphing the ending of the movie within the first 20 minutes. However, I wasn’t giving Eggers his due as the intriguing and masterful filmmaker I know he can be. Of course, the story is not that simple. Not only does the plot have enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing, but these twists and turns have visceral and emotional impact that toys with the audience’s minds. By the end, you’re left feeling betrayed by your own sense of perception and what you think you knew about heroic tales. Even with this deception, the movie’s themes of fate and free will ring throughout the story, and feel perfectly embedded into the film’s realization of beauty and violence.
There are three main assets which make The Northman shine. The first is the cast and their respective performances. Alexander Skarsgard’s portrayal of Amleth is vigorous, animalistic and savage, and his physical prowess is matched by the unyielding intensity of his conviction to the role. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Olga the Slavic Sorceress, employs a perfect balance of doe-like coyness and smoldering madness, and brings an otherworldly grace to her performance. Even Nicole Kidman shows off her acting chops as Amleth’s mother Gudrun, who can swing from maternal kindness to poisonous rage in a split second. The cast is further enhanced by small yet fascinating roles played by Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and even Icelandic singer Bjork.
Atmosphere and worldbuilding is the second pillar holding up the movie; it is rock solid and enveloping. You feel the cold, wet air of Iceland with the blustering wind, and you soak in the natural environments and the medieval settlements. It’s so authentic to the Viking age, and yet it feels less historical, and more fantastical.
And we need to address the fantasy elements of this movie.
The Northman beautifully blends historical epic drama with Norse mythology. In fact, I was often mystified and left to my own devices when it came to determining what was real and what wasn’t. I believe that’s one of the most engaging elements of the movie, as everyone watching could have a slightly different interpretation. Nevertheless, the fantasy elements provide the most surreal sequences of the film, and harken back to the otherworldly horror elements of Eggers’ first two films.
Lastly, The Northman is filmed masterfully, with incredible detail and surging energy. The film grips you by the throat during its many one-shot sequences, particularly during an amazingly violent and unsettling sequence of Amleth and his Berserker horde assaulting a Slavic village. The camera movements are natural and fluid, and give a heightened vitality to sequences which are already physically or emotionally intense. And yet, Eggers knows when to lock his camera down and film delicately framed shots, and let the actors and scenery drive the movement within the frame. This also helps the pacing of the movie, and gives audiences enough respite from the carnage to appreciate the most vulnerable and quiet aspects of the movie.
In the past 10 years, it seems pop culture has been overrun by Vikings (not unlike England in the 8th century), and our perception of Vikings has changed because of both pop culture exposure and pop history. Shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom (which I highly recommend) have fleshed out Vikings from their one-dimensional barbarian caricatures from yesteryear into a fully realized people and culture. I don’t want to discredit those depictions in those tv shows, but rather acknowledge The Northman as the next evolution of Vikings in pop culture. The film maintains all the ferocity and primal energy that we know the Vikings lived with, but there is also a raw tenderness and vulnerability which I think has never been explored in this warrior culture. That’s the beauty of this film: finding the delicate heart in a sea of blood and barbarism.
There are not enough good things to say about The Northman. It might be Robert Eggers’ best film, even without a satanic goat or Willem Dafoe farting a lot. The Northman is blindingly gorgeous, raw, captivating – and above all, epic. I am already planning a rewatch in theaters, just to recapture the purity and thrill of the experience of watching this savage tale unfold. More than just a bloody romp, the film’s thematic elements and killer storytelling breathe new life into this saga of revenge, redemption and fate.