High-budget, high-profile films like The Northman always put me in a bit of a conundrum. With the impressive and expository almost invariably taking precedence over the immersive and expressive, they require me to detach myself from myself before going in. Doing so affords me the chance to appreciate it on its own terms.
Terms that don’t necessarily align so well with my own: hope for the best, expect the worst, and show me what you’ve got with all that money you’ve been handed. Turns out all too often that the visuals and tech are mostly fine and the acting generally at least passable, but the writing is more often than not a train wreck. This is one of the great enigmas of modern-day cinema for me, and in all fairness, it’s also the undoing of many indie films.
Backed by Regency Enterprises, a grand total north of USD 70 mln. was poured into the production of filmmaker Robert Eggers’ third feature film The Northman. That may still not make it to the highest tier for the Mouse House (who’s a minority stakeholder in Regency) but it’s not exactly beer money either, not even for them. Neither is it for Eggers, coming off The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), making The Northman his biggest production by far to date, both in size and scope. A loose adaptation of the Danish legend of Amleth – the same source material that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman tells a tale of a Viking prince’s revenge and redemption.
The Northman was shot on location in Northern Ireland and Iceland and set in the 10th century, after a portentous introductory prophesy, voiced over on images of an erupting volcano, the film sets off on a bit of a rocky start, literally and figuratively, with a black crow suspended in mid-air that looked more silly than ominous to me. Next, the camera zooms out and pans to a badly rendered flotilla of computer-generated Viking ships at sea, approaching their hometown on the rocky seashore.
King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, In a Valley of Violence, Sinister) returns from a pillaging raid, accompanied by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, The Girl In The Spider’s Web, The Bay Of Silence). A welcoming ceremony is hastily arranged, headed by the king’s wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, The Others, Aquaman) and their young son, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak, The Batman) and thankfully, the film’s visuals vastly improve from here on out.
But all is not well with our king. He’s badly wounded and after shunning his wife’s sexual advances he feels that the time has come to take his son through a drug-fuelled ritual initiation towards adulthood, guided by the court’s jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse, Antichrist). But when Aurvandill and Amleth take a stroll together the next morning, they’re ambushed by masked riders.
The king is killed by what turns out to be his brother Fjölnir but Amleth escapes, only to see his village massacred and his mother kidnapped. He finds a barge on the nearby shore and makes his way into the open sea, vowing to avenge his father and rescue his mother.
Fast-forward years later, and Amleth has now grown into a muscular and formidable Viking (Alexander Skarsgård, Battleship, Hold the Dark) who’s been taken in by a group of berserkers, pillagers fuelled by animalistic rage. But upon visiting a blind seeress (Björk, in a cameo) on one of their raids, he finds out he will have to travel to Iceland to find Fjölnir and his mother, who now live in exile after having lost his father’s kingdom to Harald of Norway.
Disguised as a slave, Amleth embarks to Iceland and en route he meets, and saves in an ocean storm, a Slavic sorceress named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, Marrowbone). Once there, Fjölnir doesn’t recognize Amleth and takes him in as a slave. Under a false name, he takes up his slave duties on Fjölnir’s sheep farm and aided by Olga, Amleth starts plotting and preparing his revenge.
Accompanied by a foreboding, pulsating and excellent sound design, The Northman is a dark, violent Viking epic, based on a well-established and oft-told saga. That’s how Eggers first and foremost intends his movie to be and on that level, he succeeds with flying colours.
It’s a dark, muddy and grimy world where no sunshine is to be found. Most of the film takes place at night, in dimly fire-lit spaces, in the twilight, or under dark-grey, cloud-covered skies in the short daytime spans countries near the Arctic North are afforded during season shifts.
Scenes are captured and lighted impressively and meticulously, preserving every detail while keeping the imagery natural and organic. It’s also a violent world, where death is doled out swiftly and brutally, without mercy, hesitation or remorse, shown onscreen without any constraint. The Northman’s world is an unforgiving one where only the strongest, bravest and smartest stand a chance of survival, and wherein fortunes are decided per the caprices of the Norse pantheon of deities.
Eggers mostly stays away from any philosophical or social musings. There is meaning and purpose to be found in revenge but Eggers confines this theme to the scope of his story and makes no effort to expand this into a broader commentary. And while The Northman’s physical world seems dominated by male brute force, women are equally as strong as their spiritual companions. Olga sums this up nicely when she makes her insurgency pact with Amleth, by saying ‘you have the strength to break their bones, but I can break their minds’. But the film otherwise doesn’t make too big of a deal of any of this and wisely never gets preachy or heavy-handed.
The Northman emphasizes its epic format by dividing it into a few chapters that are introduced by rune-lettered title cards. The potential downside of such an approach is, that it jumpstarts a film a couple of times which can be jarring if done wrong. In The Northman however, this eliminates the need for any transitional exposition, and Eggers avoids the pitfalls that are inherent to this by keeping the story solely focused on Amleth and his physical and spiritual journey.
Eggers literally places Amleth in the next chapter of his journey and sheds any unnecessary cinematic ballast. Interestingly, he peppers his film throughout with supernatural overtones, with oracles, predestined fortunes, and mystical vicars relaying them. In The Northman, visions and oracles are something to be heeded. This might be a bit of a dichotomy with the otherwise blood-drenched physicality of the narrative proceedings, but it lends the film a sense of the mystical and celestial and ends up working in its favour.
Acting is solid across the board, with a jacked and imposing Skarsgård – who co-produced this film and was one of the driving forces behind its realization – snorting, growling and roaring himself through Amleth’s journey. The film really puts him through the grinder and Skarsgård delivers his performance with gusto. Taylor-Joy’s Olga is adequately mysterious and charming, but Bang’s enigmatic Fjölnir arguably delivers the best acting performance from a dramatic viewpoint. The rest of the supporting cast, star-studded as it may be, mostly contributes little more than extended cameos and does so well enough. The Northman strictly revolves around Amleth’s journey, later accompanied by Olga, and Fjölnir is the main antagonist.
As The Northman enters its final act, a subplot is revealed that puts the purpose of Amleth’s revenge mission in question. It takes a lot of the wind out of it, especially with the personal stakes now higher for him with Olga’s pregnancy and the prophecies surrounding his legacy. But once the finale – the conclusive throwdown between Amleth and Fjölnir – rolls around, the need for it to take place felt kind of lost and forced to me.
This is exacerbated by the way it’s depicted. Taking place inside the mystical volcano Hekla, and while providing a dramatically satisfying conclusion in itself, the lack of urgency to it made me wonder about the physics of the situation – an exhausting sword fight (‘holmgang’) right next to a searing lava river, in air that’s ripe with toxic fumes and sulfuric compounds. Those thoughts would not have emerged had it been more of an inevitable conclusion.
Furthermore, and this may be more of a matter of personal preference: with most of the cast having Nordic roots, and with Eggers’ Icelandic co-writer ‘Sjón’ Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (Reykjavik Whale-Watching Massacre, Lamb) on board, it would, by all means, have been possible to write this film in (classical) Danish and Icelandic.
And while I can understand that the amount of money involved with its production could be prohibitive for the lucrative, subtitle-wary dollar markets, I feel it would have given more authenticity to the in essence classical story. The dialogues here now are in English, (thankfully) sparing and have a weird Shakespearean veneer on them, with some non-specific accents going around, all designed to reinforce the epic nature of the film. It has a bit of an estranging effect, and unnecessarily so.
The Northman is not a suspenseful nail-biter, nor was it designed to be one. And despite its gore and supernatural nuances, it’s not really a horror film either – although it wouldn’t be an outlier either if it were billed as one. It’s a visually impressive, as said dark and violent, epic spectacle about a revenge journey with more than enough blood, guts, grit and punch to satisfy anyone who wants their film deeply nested in R-rated territory. It may not be entirely as perfect as it could have been, but it deserves to be commended all the same as it stands out as a daring quality effort, especially among its usually pedestrian high-budget ilk.
The Northman is available on VOD and Digital platforms via Focus Films. Blu-Ray, DVD, and 4K releases are currently scheduled for December 31st. And while you’re waiting for the 31st, FilmTagger has some ideas for what to watch.