The Northman — An Enrapturing Viking Epic

Image retrieved from TMDb

Every other review of The Northman is bound to begin with director and co-writer Robert Eggers, but that’s with good reason: The Northman is absolutely and unequivocally a Robert Eggers film. Director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers is known for making movies that are as period accurate as possible, with The Witch making use of the type of English that was spoken in 1630s America and The Lighthouse doing the same for 1890s New England lighthouse keepers. These atmospheric, slow-burn, psychological horror movies are both best watched with subtitles. So while it’s a low bar for Eggers to clear to make something more widely accessible than his first two feature length efforts, his latest venture, The Northman, is easily the most accessible film he’s made yet. 

Most of the newfound accessibility has to do with the fact that this is more of a large scale action epic than it is a contained psychological horror. Based on the same story that begat Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman is a revenge tale of a man, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, and Oscar Novak as the younger version of the character), whose uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his brother and Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), and takes Aurvandill’s wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his own. It’s of course a revenge tale — the refrain of, “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir” plays in the trailer — as Amleth basically goes into exile after seeing the destruction of his family as a young boy.

The film’s double perspectives and mindsets are its main thrust. Amleth was taught vengeance by his father, and even through becoming a grown adult, he’s never quite matured to see that even in this mostly lawless time of 895 A.D. vikings, the world has never been black and white. It can be tough to get behind a straight revenge thriller, no matter the inciting wrong, because of the knowledge that life is more complex than that. And for this very reason, Eggers was reticent to get into this viking space, citing the “macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture.” 

But it was with his co-writer, Icelandic-born Sjón to give an extra kick of authenticity, Eggers gets deeper into what the culture was actually about. He recreates locations, speech, clothing, and everything else that comes with the audiovisual experience of a film. The music, composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, even takes inspiration from the instruments of the time and uses those that I’ve never even heard of like the tagelharpa, langspil, kravik lyre, and säckpip, all of which add to the already authentic feel of the film. 

If you’ve seen The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers has always seemed allergic to the idea of romanticizing the past. The Witch is bleak, The Lighthouse is existential, and The Northman is brutal and gnarly. The incredibly impressive long-take action sequences that are pulled off showcase just how quickly a small settlement can be violently taken over, and just how little it takes to truly have your world turned upside down in this time period. Amleth, in his exile, becomes a viking berserker and scales walls with just an axe, chops off limbs, and knocks warriors off their horses. He’s remorseless for his actions, with only vengeance ever guiding him. 

But amidst the brutality and ruthless action sequences that are admittedly thrilling to watch, Eggers never quite sympathizes with his main character. Amleth is no viking John Wick, whose revenge for the transgressions against his wife and puppy are taken for granted. No, Amleth’s motivations are questioned, even when he’s sure it’s his fate to avenge his father’s death (the film leans heavily into the spirituality and religion of the time being 100% real). The important reencounter with his mother does a lot of thematic work in not much time, relative to the film’s 137-minute runtime. Kidman and Skarsgård show off their undeniable talented pull you in to this critical scene. It (fortunately) recontextualizes much of what we’ve seen up to this point, and gives the film a compelling thematic center that carries all the way to its climactic final showdown with Fjölnir.

Apart from some of the second act that can tend to drag just a bit, and an ever-so-slightly undercooked romance with Olga (the always wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic slave among whom Amleth stows away, there aren’t many detractions of The Northman. The action is merciless and unrelenting, the acting is immersive, the sets, costumes, and music are transportive, and the ideas are worth discussing. Eggers has fully established himself as one of the best, most versatile directors out there, while still maintaining the core of what makes one of his movies, his. The Northman is an impressive achievement and a captivating experience. 

2 thoughts on “The Northman — An Enrapturing Viking Epic

  1. Yeah, I loved the movie as much as you did with all the same compliments and minor drawbacks. Although I interpretted the norse mythology in this movie to not be real at all – I thought it was all in Almeth’s head as a way of romantisising his own story. Like when Odin’s crows cut him down from his uncle’s capture. He just lies there too weak to move. Then we get confirmation Olga dragged him to safety but couldnt take him too far. Makes more sense since he just lay there after the crows freed him. That’s just my reading of the film though. Excited to see what the director does next.

    Liked by 1 person

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