Robert Eggers’ has been sophisticatedly grafting out a unique name for himself recently, with The Witch and The Lighthouse picking up critical plaudits, and a dedicated fan base lapping up his distinct style. In many ways, despite retaining an individual Eggers aesthetic, this is by far his most accessible film but that by no means makes it less potent or creative.
The Northman tells the story of Viking prince Amleth who, as a child, witnesses the murder of Father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and is almost slain himself but instead escapes, with those trying to kill him also believing he’s dead. From that moment, Amleth devotes his life to avenging his father and we join him as an adult (played by Alexander Skarsgård) at the beginning of his quest to kill his Uncle, save his mother and reclaim his kingdom.
Co-written with Icelandic author Sjón, Eggers’ The Northman welcomingly goes out of his way to dismiss the Hollywood-essence of Viking history, as from early on – and beyond – it’s a brutally visceral, and stunningly shot, thriller that delves deep into the dark heart of Viking rule, without a fake-horned hat or a quick quip in sight – and it’s all the better for it. In The Northman, the cold winter of death hangs over proceedings from start to finish, because this is a revenge story and their lives were brutal but, let it be said, it’s never gratuitous for the sake of it, it’s cleverly framed and edited, so you can access it if you’re a fan of any thriller in the modern era.
Norse mythology and history is explored with darkness and definition and whilst the story is that of Amleth’s vengeance, you find yourself hooked into the atmosphere, pulled in by the equal measure of fascination and fear. It’s a battle for survival for every character, well if you’re a King, and everyone else is vying to survive, and you’ve really got to admire the process that makes us root for the lead character, but also appreciate the wealth of devotion from everyone involved.
You might find that the story reminds you of something, because at the centre is Hamlet but this isn’t Shakespeare’s version, he also mined Scandinavian folklore for this that Eggers reinvents the 21st century, with a 1st century twist. Based on a story from Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes, The Northman excels in its world-creation, helped by strong lead performances from the likes of Skarsgård, who is fuelled with the desire to avenge his Father, and much of that is brought to life with introductions to Norse gods, living through animals, the original Odin and that very real connection to the Earth itself.
Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is encased with ice and fire, you can feel the cold in the air, and the rain, snow and wind feels real, there’s no magic here – beyond that of the mind and of the spirits our lead characters choose to believe in, when they need them. In co-starring roles, Nicole Kidman gets to fully invest in innocence and evil, with a strong portrayal of his Mother, Queen Gudrún. There’s also Claes Bang as Fjölnir the Brotherless, Amleth’s Uncle and killer of his father, who rules the Kingdom with strength and no mercy. Bjork gets a very Icelandic cameo, it’s quite creepy and wonderful, and then there’s Anya Taylor-Joy, who continues to thrive on film, and this time her Olga of the Birch Forest, a fellow slave-woman, plays a large part as she’ll try to help Amleth and, yes, they help each other as well.
In a streaming sense, 4K UHD is definitely the way to go, if you can, for The Northman. You’ll pick out all the moments both beautiful and bloody, but between Eggers and Blaschke, they created an utterly refreshing experience, in the darkest way. The fire is real, the rain is vitality, the animalistic revelry is shocking and exciting, and terrifying, this is a visual experience with no Marvelisation, and an impressive and stark reminder that some things should be feared and appreciated, even in the chaos of what they lives were.
Also, who doesn’t want a finale by a volcano, with sweaty beasts Bang and Skarsgård sword fighting with the possibility of a fiery death, as we watch the fury of the earth reflected in their performances. Sure, this isn’t a documentary, but it’s a mighty escape into true Viking lore, and there’s the absolute bonus of Willem Dafoe being his usual brilliantly bizarre self.