When cinematically exploring the importance of binding fate, sometimes its threads need to hang from the chiselled abs of a blood-soaked Viking that likes howling into an open fire. Following up from laying his directorial groundwork in The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), Robert Eggers’ distinctive voice once again shows he knows the true meaning of unfiltered, epic cinema. Though not always cohesive, The Northman is a film embroiled in filmic legacy, leaving lashings of internal scars on its audience.
Rooted in legend, Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) seeks to avenge his father’s death. Convincing those around him that he is a slave, Amleth travels across the Nordic seas to seek out his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) while falling for Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy). Amidst the blood and guts of battle, Amleth is conflicted by his hereditary ties to a long-awaited fate.
For those that are partial to historical viewing, The Northman never falls short of its sub-genre. Accented by bloodbaths, beheadings and hypnotic roaring, the film is charged with a stunning level of chaos. Following the traditional narrative structure of Hamlet, Eggers enthuses his Viking iteration with a taste of the supernatural. Never straying far from the barbaric truth to the past, Skarsgård’s Amleth is tortured with the notion of choosing to hate or subconsciously living it. There are no dulled links in the ensemble performance—each of the star-studded cast put in a performance worthy of their reputation. Although this should be Skarsgård’s film, it’s Kidman that runs forward into filmic battle, showing the cruelly tinged perspective of the ‘great’ woman behind her man.
Though performance is ultimately what drives The Northman forward, the partnership of cinematography and sound design are the unwavering stars of the show. Using the rugged, visceral Nordic landscapes to its advantage, the subtle tipping points into grayscale make for much needed yet sobering pauses for breath. The expected pounding of Viking drums is continually elevated, combining with scenes of toe-curling battle to climax in an overload of the senses. Even without any context, the film makes for worthy viewing, becoming a unique testament to cinematic grandeur previously missing from the post-pandemic slate.
While some will naturally gravitate towards the super-charged archival machismo that The Northman embodies, others will struggle to resonate. There’s little emotional alignment that allows for character empathy, alongside sadistic (yet accurate) social commentary that can be difficult to bear watching. It’s clear that Eggers has a tailored focus to his visual output—which works to spectacular effect. However, it creates a unique narrative paradox of a stunningly simple narrative that’s also incredibly difficult to follow, thanks to the onslaught of cinematic elements firing into it from all directions.
When there’s a moment to shield and take cover, The Northman is a beautiful Nordic fever dream. Tinged with quiet comedy that almost shouldn’t be there, the process of becoming a man ascends to a dizzying level of heart-stopping action. While failing to break the cycle of avenging the wrongs of yesterday, the film is bamboozling to keep up with, often becoming overwhelming in a world where very few are deemed worthy of life. Even still, it’s an unchaining of beastly animalism that’s hard to ignore—even with a disappointingly fleeting presence from Björk.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Robert Eggers
STARS: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke
RUNTIME: 140 minutes