Visionary director Robert Eggers returns with Viking historical epic The Northman
In the last seven years writer/director Robert Eggers has exploded onto the scene with intimate films that blend period settings with folklore and psychological horror to create spellbinding, terrifying results. His first two films, ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’ were tentpole films for well-regarded A24 Entertainment and propelled him and his stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Robert Pattinson to be some of the most sought-after names in Hollywood. Now with a serious cash injection from Universal Pictures Eggers turns his hand to a much broader story, the Viking historical epic The Northman. Can lightning strike a third time?
The Northman is inspired by the original Hamlet legend. Set in a tenth century Viking kingdom Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) is forced to flee as a child when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and takes his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) to be his own bride. Amleth vows revenge and spends years rampaging across Northern Europe honing his skills as a warrior. When a chance conversation leads him to the new home of his uncle and mother, Amleth disguises himself as a slave in his household and sets out on a course of extreme vengeance.
The overarching theme of The Northman is the conflict between vengeance for fallen family and love for those that are still alive. Whilst on his quest Amleth meets and falls in love with fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy,) a witch forced into slavery, and must choose between maintaining his bloody course or breaking the violent cycle and leaving to start a new, peaceful family with her.
This is a distinctly un-Hollywood look at the much-covered Vikings and probably the closest we’ll ever get to really capturing the blood-soaked fury of their legends. It is gory to the max, bare chested berserkers howling like wolves as they butcher children, rape women and ransack villages under an unnerving, guttaral score that makes use of traditional Nordic folk instruments and throat singing.
Like Eggers’ previous films, The Northman makes heavy use of actual folklore to bring supernatural elements to the plot. Frequently we are unsure if the characters are based in reality, dream or hallucination as it all blurs into one nightmarish hellscape. The actors turn in fantastic performances, Skarsgard in particular transforming into a snarlingly visceral, primal figure. He’s in his element.
Whilst I felt there were some thematic similarities to Gladiator, The Northman feels infinitely less human as we are transported into a society that feels as if it has no civilisation whatsoever, one run entirely on an endless cycle of violence and toxic masculinity. It is genuinely unnerving at times and not because of any sort of mystic or supernatural forces at play, but rather the unflinching portrayal of humans behaving like animals.
My one complaint about The Northman – and it is coloured heavily by my love of Robert Eggers previous films so other viewers experiences may vary – is that it just wasn’t strange enough. There’s plenty here that is shocking yes, but very little in the plot is surprising. It all runs a rather predictable course that we have seen before in other films and Amleth ends up right where you predict him to. Unlike my viewing experiences of both The Witch and The Lighthouse I didn’t come out of the film thinking ‘wow, what the hell did I just watch?’ which felt a little disappointing given my high expectations. Maybe it’s the cost of trying to have a broader appeal.
Nevertheless, this is still epic, quality filmmaking from all involved. The Northman is a powerful gut punch of a film that sets brutal human violence against stunning Icelandic landscapes to brilliant effect. Evocative and atmospheric it plunges its audience right into the guts and gore of an unrelenting quest for vengeance and brings to life a Viking epic in a way it has never been seen before. A bold step for one of cinemas most unique voices.
The Northman is out in UK cinemas on 15th April 2022