To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, The Northman is a historical epic action-thriller directed by Robert Eggers, from a screenplay written by Eggers and Sjón (Lamb). Featuring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe, The Northman is Eggers’ third directorial feature after The Witch and The Lighthouse. Based on the legend of Amleth, the direct inspiration for William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the story follows Amleth, a Viking prince who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of his father King Aurvandill at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir.
In 895 AD, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) reunites with his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and his heir, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) on the island of Hrafnsey after battling overseas. Aurvandill is gravely injured from his conquests and knowing he will not live forever prepares Amleth for his eventual ascension to the throne. The two participate in a spiritual ceremony overseen by Aurvandill’s jester, Heimir (Willem Dafoe). The next morning, Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders the king, kills his soldiers, and takes his wife as his own. Amleth escapes by boat, swearing to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.
Years later in the Land of Rus, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) lives as a berserker with a band of Vikings that wear the skins of wolves and worship Fenrir. After raiding a village, Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk) in the temple who reminds him of his vow to take revenge on Fjölnir. Heeh learns from another berserker that Fjölnir was overthrown by King Harald of Norway and lives in exile in Iceland. Posing as a slave, Amleth sneaks aboard a ship where he encounters a Slavic sorceress named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). Not recognizing his adult nephew, Amleth and Olga are sold to Fjölnir as labor for his farm. Giving Amleth proximity to enact his vengeance.
The best part about Robert Eggers’ films is that everything feels gritty and dirty. The actors look as if they are being worked to the bone to give a great performance. So far all of his features have been period pieces and all look the part. The cinematography is wonderful and feels as if you were being transported back to the Middles Ages. Jarin Blaschke (Shimmer Lake) captures the vast landscape of Iceland on full display in every scene. We are taken from lush plains to dark caves, to smoky volcanoes in a matter of weeks. Blaschke and Eggers should continue working on projects together as they have great chemistry in presenting a film. This film is also very brutal. Every kill is ruthless and visceral. Blood splatters everywhere and you can feel the pain of the murdered. The bodies that are left on display from some of Amelth’s attacks mirror the work of a demon.
There are however some confusing story components that revolve around mythological elements. The movie never makes it clear whether they are real, a part of Amleth’s imagination, or something else entirely. The film would have been better if it made it clear whether it was fantasy or realism. There’s also a point in the story where there are no more good guys to root for. Our hero realizes that the mission he is on is pointless, yet he still decides to go through with it. At the same time, his enemies are not revealed as secret heroes but are still terrible people. At a certain point, the mutually assured destruction of the characters becomes more apparent.
Sometimes the journey is better than the destination and this film is a prime example of that. While the violence and gore might not be for everyone it still feels like watching a raw and untethered work of art. I give The Northman a Decent 7.65/10. This film has all the style and grit I would expect from a Robert Eggers film. I love that Eggers wishes to keep making films set in the past, but it would be nice for him to try a different genre like sci-fi.