The Northman (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 138 mins

The Northman is the latest by director Robert Eggers and is arguably his highest-profile film to date. Eggers cooked a cinematic storm with his debut feature The Witch which was a visceral and deeply unsettling drama that was wrongly marketed as an out-and-out horror film which disappointed some audiences. It also served as a launchpad for Anya Taylor-Joy whose exemplary and nuanced performance provided the film’s backbone. 

Eggers next directed The Lighthouse, which performed favourably with critics. I thought Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe delivered excellent, authentic performances and the film’s atmosphere was frequently mesmerising, although narratively it is a challenging watch.   

The Northman is a historical revenge epic starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince whose father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is brutally murdered by his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) when he is a child. Fjölnir takes control of the kingdom and puts a price on Amleth’s head, forcing him to flee, and unites with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). 

Amleth has a simple quest, a mantra that he repeats to himself throughout the film – avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. The film jumps forward in time when Amleth is a fully fledged man, a member of a band of Vikings who have raised him as a ruthless berserker. When Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk) following an attack on a village, he is placed on his path of revenge. 

The Northman is a Robert Eggers film through and through and there’s a lot to admire, even if it is flawed. As he has demonstrated in his first two films, his attention to authenticity is laudable and the Scandinavian setting is presented as a cutthroat, desolate and animalistic vista. It is typically well-researched and the script penned by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón feels genuine in its choice of language.  

The film is frequently spiritual and dream-like in its tone, although it often borders on the ridiculous and is full of portent. The first half an hour is particularly sensory, as the young Amleth undergoes a spiritual coming-of-age ceremony with his father. There is also an astonishingly beautiful montage sequence that foreshows Amleth’s destiny that is Eggers through and through. 

The cinematography by Eggers-regular Jarin Blaschke is profound and evocative, a long-take in an early raiding of a village particularly satisfying. The Northman marks the first of Eggers’ films not to be scored by Mark Korven and instead brings the duo of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough to the fore. The score also does a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing a grim tone with its authentic string and percussion-based beats. 

As is also typical for Eggers, the director coaxes some excellent performances from the talented cast. Alexander Skarsgård is not the most subtle of actors in quieter films but with this being a more physical role that suits him, he delivers and he makes for a commanding lead. Anya Taylor-Joy is by far and away the highlight of the film with a typically nuanced and delicate performance as Olga, a Slavic sorceress whose path crosses with Amleth, their love diverting from his mission. Claes Bang is also surprisingly excellent as the seemingly formidable yet pathetic Fjölnir, offering a muted performance, which is against type as he is quite a showy actor. Ethan Hawke delivers an interesting but committed performance as the King with a limited life in the film’s first thirty minutes and Willem Dafoe makes a commanding impression in a small role as a court jester. Björk also delivers an assured performance as the Seeress in a small role. It’s only really Nicole Kidman who doesn’t bring her all to the role of the Queen, although she is serviceable enough. 

The Northman has its fair share of flaws though and it’s not quite the slam-dunk it could have been. Although Eggers generates a palpable atmosphere, the film’s narrative is rather empty and it doesn’t have much of an elegiac and lasting quality to it. That said, there are some interesting sporadic plot twists that keep the film tipped on the fresh side. One also has to suspend narrative belief as Amleth could very easily achieved his mission earlier. The film is a lengthy 138 minutes and it sure is plodding in its pace at times. 

The film is also not nearly violent enough considering its subject matter. Eggers stages some visceral action sequences with some thrilling kills, but they are generally all implied as the camera cuts away, leaving the action to audience interpretation.

The Northman is ultimately an ambitious Viking epic with some excellent performances and arresting visuals. However, it’s lacking in its narrative and lacks the lasting impact of the best historical epic revenge films. It is always better for a director to take risks than to compromise in its directors vision and deliver an anonymous picture. On that front, The Northman is unmistakably a Robert Eggers film that showcases his best and worst qualities. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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