- A review of the latest creative endeavour of Robert Eggers
- Looking into the background of one of the most ambitious films of the year
- Prestigious or pretentious filmmaking?
- Is it worth your time?
The Northman is a historical thriller set in 10th-century Scandinavia. The film, starring Alexander Skarsgård as a Viking berserker, is the latest creative output of visionary director Robert Eggers.
At two hours and 17 minutes, the picture is one of the most ambitious of this year, with an estimated budget of $70-90 million.
But is this expensive indie film worth your time?
Is the film industry capable of new ideas?
Perhaps there was a time when nobody needed to ask this question, but modern audiences might be jaded with the ever-expanding number of sequels, spinoffs, remakes, and cinematic universes.
To many, it seems like the percentage of successful, truly original films has taken a downturn.
Enter Robert Eggers, one of the most exciting directors to emerge in the last decade.
In 2015, he brought us his first feature film. The Witch – or The VVitch if you prefer – was a truly unsettling horror movie, made all the more immersive by its attention to historical detail.
His reputation grew with The Lighthouse in 2019, but will The Northman be what brings Eggers into true public renown?
Possibly not, although that’s not for a lack of trying. More on that later…
Amleth is a Scandinavian Prince, seemingly enjoying an idyllic childhood – for the time, anyway. However, when his uncle Fjölnir murders his father and takes the kingdom for himself, Amleth swears an oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir”.
Once a grown man, now played by a very imposing Alexander Skarsgård, this brutal berserker is reminded of his oath by a seeress in eastern Europe. Boarding a ship, he voluntarily joins a set of slaves that he has just helped to conquer, beginning a harsh trip to his revenge in Iceland.
The Northman followers a trend in Robert Eggers films; it is a historically accurate and moody experience, seasoned with strong use of symbolism and mythology.
With that being said, The Northman appears to be the closest thing to a ‘standard’ plot that the director has ever done. Movies with similar themes range from The Revenant to John Wick. Indeed, the legend of Prince Amleth, from which this film takes inspiration, is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What makes the Northman stand out is the execution. At the time in which the plot is set, it may have been a simple hero / villain narrative; today, the plot is much morally greyer, albeit without Skarsgård ever losing his protagonist status.
Without including spoilers, the context behind Amleth’s revenge changes as more information comes to light.
Characters & Acting
Skarsgård pulls off the role of a brutal Norse warrior exceptionally. His ability to develop a masculine physique has been previously documented in The Legend of Tarzan, although his appearance in this film makes him seem more feral – a fact that was undoubtedly intentional.
Similar to the ‘hero’, the other characters in the plot acquire more depth as more is revealed about them.
Anya Taylor-Joy continues her journey as one of cinema’s rising stars. Having previously starred in the Witch, she continues in a similar theme by playing Olga, a sorceress. Taylor-Joy fits in well for this role – which was supposedly written with her in mind – successfully pulling off an Eastern European accent and walking the fine line between sympathetic and mysterious.
Claes Bang makes for an interesting villain, without being moustache-twirlingly evil.
Other roles, including Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandil (Amleth’s father), Willem Dafoe as his court jester, and even Björk as a seeress are quite short contributions, but well-executed and in keeping with the setting.
The most unusual choice was Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún. Not the first choice one might expect as a Viking queen, her performance is of a decent quality.
The main takeaway from the inclusion of actors like Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, and Willem Dafoe is how much Eggers’ influence has grown since the Witch; his projects may be independent, but they obtain enough prestige that they attract such big named performers.
Staging & cinematography
As with both past Eggers films, great importance is given to the sets, props, and wardrobe. Viewers can really believe the place in which the story takes place actually existed.
While the story is not a straight-action film, the depictions of violence are not uncommon and are appropriately brutal. The use of armour and weaponry brings such scenes to life just as much as the screams of pain and loss during and after a fight.
As expected, the cinematography is beautiful; it lacks the purposefully quaint look of old films present in The Lighthouse but brings together visually stunning pictures from across the locations in which the plot takes the viewer.
The Northman is a detailed, beautifully shot, fantastically acted piece of cinema.
It represents an independent vision that successfully tells a compelling story, without requiring a larger franchise.
Any minor issues with the film are outweighed by the many positive aspects of its storytelling. As a viewer, you owe it to yourself to go and see it.