‘The Northman’ Review: “Marrying Brutality & Myth”
Scant few things about the tale of The Northman are new. Drawn from the legend of Viking Prince Amleth, the revenge narrative at the core of writer-director Robert Eggers’ third feature inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet, in turn, went on to inspire recent films in cinema such as The Lion King. The legend of Amleth forms a cultural ouroboros, where can we consistently see new stories springing from the same narrative. What, then, makes it worth watching the snake eat its own tail once more? The Northman is an effective reminder of the almost supernatural skill of Robert Eggers, bringing the legend of Amleth back to its roots with great immediacy.
The Northman maintains a strong balance between brutality and mysticism. Both are in conversation with one another. At the outset of the film, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), coming home from battle injured, brings his son Amleth into a ceremony led by Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe) to prepare him for his future as King. Said ceremony proceeds crudely, and no one is trying to hide that. But by seeing the moment through the eyes of the characters, Eggers gifts it a high gravitas befitting of a key moment in a legend. Now you have a sense of the virile brush he uses on The Northman‘s aged canvas.
Tragedy strikes as Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) revolts against Aurvandill, decapitating him in front of his son’s very eyes. Amleth flees, vowing to avenge his father, save his mother (Nicole Kidman), and kill Fjölnir. Passage of time brings a grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) into the company of warriors. Following the sacking of a small village, he has a meeting with an oracle of sorts (Björk) and points Amleth in the right direction. With the knowledge that his uncle has been driven to a farm in Iceland where he holds court, Amleth disguises himself among slaves shipping over there. Amongst this group, he meets sorceress Olga (Anya-Taylor Joy). The two concoct a plan to steadily destroy everything Fjölnir has built.
To some degree, The Northman is the first action film Robert Eggers directed. You’d hardly know it, though. Action sequences play out in loose wides shot by Jarin Blaschke that gracefully transition into a tracking shot when necessary. Furthermore, the cinematography does the most important thing needed in the film’s frequent bouts of violence: clearly laying out the geography of any given location, clearly letting the impact of the various stabbing, decapitations, bludgeonings, what have you be accentuated, and never losing sight of the characters’ reactions. Morbid as it may be, the masterful action on display brings the past into a present sensibility. It’s as if the events of The Northman unfold before our very eyes. The bloodshed amongst green hills, a duel on a volcano, sucks us straight into the screen. It’s provocative art.
Much in the same vein as Shakespeare’s Hamlet borrowed liberally from Viking legend, The Northman‘s script has shades of the Bard. Fear not, there are no drawn-out soliloquies. Rather, Eggers and co-writer Sjón let their characters speak in bombastic ways. Through a distinctly Scandinavian dialect, their script makes no secret of a character’s emotion. Words are as blunt and cutting as the violence. However, their script’s unruly pace, which takes several detours to nod to the intricacies of Viking culture, doesn’t always feel justified. There’s a sense that, along with the film’s technical flourishes, it almost crosses the line into indulgence. Nevertheless, it avoids that fate by being as upfront about what it is as the percussion-and-chant heavy, driving score from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.
If The Northman draws another parallel with Shakespeare, at least Shakespeare as it’s meant to be performed, it’s in wonderfully over-the-top performances. Alexander Skarsgard lets the beast out as Amleth, relishing this role with all he can. He’s more a vessel for vengeance than a man. Anya-Taylor Joy just as well weaponizes her mystical screen presence for another spellbinding turn. Yet really, it’s the supporting cast that adds a texture to the adventure. Claes Bang’s Fjölnir and Nicole Kidman’s Gudrún have more shades to them than one would expect from their character archetypes. Meanwhile, Gustav Lindh, Willem Dafoe, and Björk get small turns that will linger in the memory. Most importantly, everyone involved takes their work incredibly seriously. They believe in the project.
The Northman feels alive. For an adaptation of a legend over a thousand years old, that’s no small feat. It takes the myth of Amleth apart, looks at what makes it tick, and uses all the effective tools available in the modern age to give it a primal feel. Many will question what the point is of such an exercise. What’s the point of any exercise? It’s about what you find, and The Northman finds blood and rapture. Eggers’ previous films like The Witch and The Lighthouse have become fixtures of the modern cinematic canon. The Northman will surely follow. – James Preston Poole
The Northman releases in theaters on April 22, 2022.