Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Bjork, Ethan Hawke
Runtime: 2 hrs 17 mins
Rating: NC16 (Sexual Scenes and Violence)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 2 June 2022
Synopsis: Young Prince Amleth is on the cusp of becoming a man when his father is brutally murdered by his uncle, who kidnaps the boy’s mother. Fleeing his island kingdom by boat, the child vows revenge. Two decades later, Amleth is a Viking berserker raiding Slavic villages, where a seeress reminds him of his vow: avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle. Traveling on a slave ship to Iceland, Amleth infiltrates his uncle’s farm with the help of Olga, an enslaved Slavic woman — and sets out to honor his vow.
If you are a fan of the 38-year-old American director Robert Eggers, you’d likely be eagerly anticipating this bloody Viking revenge saga that Eggers had conceived with its lead star Alexander Skarsgård. Indeed, it is not hard to see how Eggers’ fascination with ritual, runic mysticism and physical mortification would be ripe for a story based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which centuries later trickled down into the tale of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
And true enough, ‘The Northman’ is exactly what you would expect from Eggers’ exactitude with the material. The mise-en-scene is stunning, in particular the attention to historical detail of the costumes and sets. The score is performed with historically accurate instruments like the bone flute and the tagelharpa, a lyre with strings made of horsehair. The dialogue brims with rich, flavourful idioms, and the pronunciation is thoughtfully deliberate. Even the intertitles that establish the scene changes are in runics, reinforcing the extent of research that has gone into the making of the movie.
Like his earlier ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’, ‘The Northman’ boasts similar hypnotic visuals through the use of firelight, shadows and gray-black imagery. Thanks to the bravura camera work by Jarin Blaschke, Eggers’ feverishly inventive imagination is brought to vivid life. From an early sequence of a hallucinatory pagan ritual that allows Amleth to glimpse at the Tree of Kings, to an encounter with Bjork’s “seeress”, to the climactic sword fight at the lip of an active volcano, and to the final scene of Amleth entering the gates of Valhalla atop an airborne Valkyrie, the images are unquestionably elaborate and arresting, demonstrating yet again Eggers’ confident grasp of aesthetics and atmosphere.
Eggers’ conviction to the material is matched by that of his cast. Skarsgård, who had been developing this project before Eggers and had brought it to him, not only bulks up hugely for the role but has trained himself in everything from horseback riding to sword- and axe-fighting to Japanese Butoh dance. Applying his trademark intensity to magnetic effect, Skarsgård shares tender chemistry with Anna Taylor-Joy as the slave Olga whose fate will become entwined with Amleth’s, oozes menace with Kidman’s slyly subversive turn as Amleth’s duplicitous mother Gudrun, and goes full-blown mano-a-mano with Claes Bang as Amleth’s treacherous uncle Fjölnir.
For all its strengths though, it should be said that the story is both simple and familiar. In one sentence, it is about a young prince who seeks to avenge his father, the king, whose killer has usurped the throne and married the prince’s mother. Said prince in this case is Amleth, who after witnessing the death of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir, returns years later to Fjölnir’s Icelandic homestead for vengeance. Amleth finds an unexpected ally in Olga, who will not only conspire to achieve his end, but also fall in love with each other. Even though we’ve learnt from Eggers’ earlier films that story is secondary, the dramatic sameness ultimately diminishes the movie’s impact.
Still, there is no denying Eggers’ ambition, or for that matter his achievement in making a visually stunning Norse epic. As he has proven, Eggers is a visual auteur with the vision and talent to transport his audience into a bygone period of folklore, and here he immerses his audience into a foreboding time and place of equal parts mystical Valkyrie-and-Valhalla dreams and gritty real-world nightmares. We’d wish he had invested more time in the storytelling, but ‘The Northman’ remains a feast for the senses, a visceral treat both grand and gruesome not least in its uncompromising violence. If anything, it cements Eggers’ credibility as a filmmaker of raw immediacy, with ‘The Northman’ an unquestioned addition to the track record of his ferocious folk-horror cinema.
(Narratively simple but visually hypnotic, 'The Northman' is Robert Eggers at his folk-horror best)
Review by Gabriel Chong