Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Writer-director Robert Eggers made his feature debut with the slow-burn horror film The Witch (starring Anya Taylor-Joy). He followed this up with the slow-burn horror fantasy The Lighthouse. While audiences had mixed reactions, he received critical acclaim for both. His newest work, The Northman, is his most accessible and certainly most commercial.
The story begins in 985 AD. Young Prince Amleth’s (Oscar Novak) father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), returns from battle and is murdered by his half-brother, the bastard Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir takes the throne and abducts Aurvandill’s queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, there is no surprise as it draws from the same source as Hamlet. Shakespeare derived his play from the legend of Amleth, preserved by the 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in Gesta Danorum and retold in the 16th century by François de Belleforest.
And while the two works share DNA, tonally and stylistically, they are opposing forces. The Northman is a film of great violence and fewer words. Eggers relies on strong and effective visuals rather than dialogue to tell his story. The screenplay (written in collaboration with the Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist Sjón) presents a universe of blood and blood oaths, visions and vengeance. Amleth repeats, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” This litany becomes the watch cry of the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), whose sole purpose is to right this wrong.
After witnessing his father’s murder, Amleth flees. Vikings find the boy and raise him as a berserker. Years later, following a brutal Viking attack in the land of Rus, a seeress (Björk) tells the now grown Amleth he will soon have his revenge. Amleth learns that soon after the betrayal, Fjölnir was ousted. Amleth has himself branded a slave and sent to his uncle’s pastoral exile.
While being transported, he connects with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic sorceress also captured in Rus. They form an alliance that becomes a bond. Eventually, she tells him, “You have the strength to break their bones; I have the cunning to break their minds.” On the Icelandic farm, Amleth discovers that his mother became Fjölnir’s wife and bore him a son, Gunnar (Elliot Rose).
The Northman is steeped in death—by arrow, axe, spear, knife, and sword. The savagery extends to slaughter, rape, and slavery. Eggers never shies from the perpetual devastation, embracing the primal existence. His hero is not the indecisive Hamlet but a warrior with a monomaniacal purpose.
Cinematically, the film is compelling and moves along, but always at the same brisk pace, both the film’s strength and weakness. The Northman never becomes “more than.” The characters never surprise because their actions alone define them, no less but no more. As they must live moment to moment, they are not individuals of nuance or subtlety, reflecting this unyielding world.
The cast uniformly delivers, but there are few complicated arcs because there is no subtext. The exception to this is Kidman’s queen, whose revelations shock Amleth. Kidman gives an unbridled and ferocious performance.
Skarsgård manages to find different if limited shades, but Amleth’s almost unwavering focus does not provide a great number of opportunities. He states later in the story, “Hate is all I have ever known. I wish I could be free of it.” Taylor-Joy (best known for her outstanding performance in The Queen’s Gambit) mines the limited role for as much variety as possible.
There are a few odd elements in an otherwise consistent realm. The accents seem to be rooted in some “once-upon-an-oldie-timey.” The CGI ravens that rescue Amleth seem out of step with Eggers’ hyper-reality. And in a world of dirt and mud, Olga manages to keep her nearly white dress and blonde tresses immaculate. While this could be symbolic, it is jarring.
Eggers’s attention to detail is the driving force that climaxes with a sword fight on the side of a volcano. Whether he is showing an attack, a close-up of a brooding Skarsgård calculating his next step, or drug-induced prophecies, Eggers offers a raw and brutal world in this predictable but powerful film.
Rated R, The Northman is now playing in local theaters.