REVIEW: The Northman

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Sjón, Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang
Runtime: 137 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      I have given one film a five star rating in the past ten years: The Lighthouse. Director Robert Eggers crafted an impeccable confined psychological thriller atop the drab, briney contextual aesthetics of late 1800s maritime New England. Upon rewatching transfixed yet again by the mercurial characters, arresting exchanges, and provocative presentation, I conferred my highest rating onto Eggers’ work of art. As evidenced by both The Lighthouse and his first feature-length effort, the deeply unsettling The Witch, Eggers’ trademark is hyper-attention to immersing the viewer into the time period of the story he is telling while weaving in elements of folklore into an otherwise realistic presentation. Thus, after I heard he was directing a tenth-century Scandinavian revenge tale based on the source material for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman easily became my most anticipated film of 2022. With such massive expectations to meet, The Northman was doomed from the outset. Right?

      After King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is slain by his own brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) is taken into captivity, young Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is forced to flee across the sea but swears to avenge his parents. After years overseas raiding villages and tearing out Slavic throats, Amleth heeds the call of a spooky prophetess, feigns being a slave aboard a ship headed for Iceland to where his uncle now resides in a farm. En route, he forms a relationship with alluring Slavic slave girl Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and begins planning his path to righteous vengeance.

      Right in line with his past features, Eggers throws you into a maelstrom of early medieval Nordic warfare, ceremony, and esoteric pagan rituals. However, the geographical scope of his storytelling has vastly expanded and, consequently, impressive wide shots abound You can feel the ruggedness of the physical setting through the stark imagery of the landscapes. Much of the film takes place at night with firelights or moonlight providing a characteristic orange or blue glow, respectively, to each scene. As a result of supernatural imagery intertwining with harsh reality, a dreamlike atmosphere pervades the entire presentation. Behind it all, an epic pounding score drives tension to its peaks.

      Beyond the film’s extrinsic excellence, The Northman has an admirable intrinsic character steeped in foreign bygone traditions that swim against modern currents. The uncompromisingly grisly nature of 10th-century warfare in which Amleth participates prohibit character judgments through a present-day normative lens. Even still, his main character arc of bringing retribution for a brutal wrong committed against his family with cosmic implications is the focal point that keeps the audience transfixed. Seeing himself as a link in an ancestral chain visualized by a literal glowing tree of connected individuals, Amleth recognizes his duty and his place within a greater ancestral timeline. He heeds his calling, performs his masculine duty, and accepts his fate as higher powers have ordained. Seeing a character thinking entirely outside of a narcissistic frame is refreshing to see.

      Despite its soaring peaks, The Northman is never quite aerodynamic enough to achieve escape velocity. Infrequently, the film maintains extended focus on aesethic flourishes at the expense of overall pacing which can detach the audience from caring about Amleth’s journey. Since this is his first period piece where English is not the actual historical language, the accented line deliveries occasionally fail to communicate the dramatic heft of the narrative and fall flat. In particular, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Slavic accent is a little hard to buy. On a fundamental level, despite the allure of the greater narrative and visual delights, no individual character is terribly fascinating, and the script is for the most part merely functional rather than consistently invigorating. The characters on screen never seem to fully embody the grand vision from which they are instantiated. With little narrative or presentation innovation and with the performances feeling a bit hollow, The Northman fails to carve out a space within the highest territory of my rating system.

      Even still, The Northman still lands high up on the scale of cinematic quality. Getting lost in the visuals and the atmosphere alone is a worthwhile experience. The simple story and archetypical characters form a rock solid foundation for a screenplay that refuses to dilute itself. The gritty realism of the presentation, particularly the action sequences, sets The Northman head and shoulders above most Viking-related productions. You are truly transported into another time and place where your everyday ethics cannot be applied so cleanly. Its foreignness is largely why it is so transfixing as entertainment. If you can stomach intense violence and appreciate historical action and drama, I am going to recommend you add The Northman to your watchlist right away.

RATING: ★★★★

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