THIS ANTI-MONITOR REVIEW OF ‘THE NORTHMAN’ CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Jarrod Jones. And now for something completely insane: a 137-minute long Viking revenge saga from auteur filmmaker Robert Eggers, he of The Witch and The Lighthouse, a surreal gods-walk-among-us power narrative where the ur-text for Hamlet is presented with meticulous period finery and frequently spirals into cathartic frenzy and cosmic beauty. There it is, jammed in-between runs for the eleventh Potterverse flick and Morbius, possibly the most potent and vividly rendered adventure-drama-thriller distributed in wide release since… gods, it’s hard to even recall. (With apologies to Ridley Scott.)
The wide-release strategy of The Northman, conceived by Universal and Focus Features, might prove to be a bigger gamble than originally anticipated, given the film’s performance at this weekend’s box office. But one has to admire the energy with which a major studio has embraced Eggers’ unique and decidedly polarizing vision, possibly to their financial peril, at a time when it’s de rigueur to invest in safer, more conventional fare. (Depending on who you ask, this film cost anywhere between 70 and 90 million dollars to produce, and it just might be a full-on battle for it to hit either number in terms of domestic gross.)
Despite all that wonky noise, freak-out big swings still have a home in multiplexes and The Northman is here to point its rune-branded bat at the cheap seats. That boisterousness is fitting; I mentioned Hamlet just now, and there are certainly visual cues in Eggers’ film that will send Great Dane enthusiasts down a spiral of theatrical reveries. Yet, evocative flourishes aside, Eggers (allied with co-writer Sjón, who also co-wrote last year’s Lamb) forges bitter steel from the proto-material instead of cutting thick slices of ham from it.
Put simply, Prince Amleth (first Oscar Novak, then Alexander Skarsgård) witnesses the slaying of his king father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) by his ambitious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). 20 years on, Amleth becomes a viking mercenary who has honed his body and mind for a single purpose: to avenge his father, rescue his queen mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and exact cruel revenge against Fjölnir.
The Shakespearean parallels rightfully dim after that. There’s a bit with a skull that once belonged to a fool (Willem Dafoe) and Amleth’s vengeful soul is emboldened by prophecy (this time by a Seeress played by Björk), but The Northman is paving its own unique path through Scandinavian tradition and myth. (Eggers, like so many deep, bearded young men, was inspired by a visit to the ancient expanses of Iceland.) In fact, the only time you might think about the many, many iterations of Hamlet during the film, especially the more ostentatious ones, is when Kidman is finally cut loose by Eggers to hurl the story, and Skarsgård, into prime-time Oedipal territory.
Kidman’s performance is possibly the most theatrical in The Northman, though Eggers & Sjón’s screenplay affords ample opportunities for the rest of the cast to indulge their own moments of exultation and agony. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a sorceress that seems to be the only person who can tame Amleth’s inner beast, gets a big moment that feels at once like she is committing body and soul to the film’s mythological aspects and a celebration of her continued friendship and collaboration with Eggers (this is their second, and it will not be their last).
Alexander Skarsgård, who has built an indelible (if low-key) career from his many supporting roles, is clearly taking this second shot at leading-man ascendency deadly serious. (You might have forgotten that he played opposite Margot Robbie in the 2016 dud, The Legend of Tarzan.) Skarsgård towers over every moment; Eggers often frames him shoulders-first, strutting through one-take berserker sequences like a biker brute on some epic amphetamine bender. It’s a lusty, physical performance that eclipses the quieter beats where Skarsgård is required to emote directly into the camera and his big, soulful eyes almost make Amleth look dopey, especially when the story takes turns that seem to imply that his entire reason for being has been rendered almost meaningless.
The film’s tricky morality—after all, revenge quests aren’t the most noble pursuits—ends up hinging on Claes Bang, who plays the villain role with equal parts resolve, strength, and madness. The saga of The Northman is set squarely on Amleth’s broad shoulders, but it’s also Fjölnir’s story, told peripherally but conveyed succinctly by Bang’s ability to shift gears from murderous resolve to quiet virtue and back again without letting his character slip into stock caricature. By the time Amleth and Fjölnir face off for the final time, you almost wish the two of them could cut their losses—considerable though they may be—and lay their swords down for a life less inclined towards armageddon.
The story of The Northman isn’t a wildly complicated one; its complexity comes from the same fundamental moral conclusions that are gleaned from myths and legends by design. In effect, this might be the least intriguing of Eggers’ filmography (especially when you consider the formidable company it keeps). Yet, and this is where things get interesting, when you combine its narrative simplicity and its commercial ambitions with Eggers’ zeal for cerebral compositions it also turns out to be his most electrifying film by a Nordic mile. Funny how that works out. Caked with blood and imbued with guttural emotion, The Northman doesn’t elicit primal shivers by the sound of steel scraping bone so much as it does by the sheer audaciousness of its existence.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Written by Sjón and Robert Eggers.
Produced by Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, and Arnon Milchan.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe.
Rated R for Viking brutality, flatulence, naked bods illuminated by moonlight and volcanic havoc.