The Northman – movie review

Director Robert Eggers previously gave us the supernatural stylings of 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s austere and claustrophobic The Lighthouse. Now, with The Northman, he gives us a violent, gory tale of revenge and morality set in 10th century Iceland that takes its cues from Shakespeare’s classic tale Hamlet.

King Aurvandill War Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns home from battle to be warmly welcomed by his wife Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and his young son and heir Amleth (Oscar Novak). (The name Amleth is an obvious anagram of Hamlet.) But the next day the king is brutally killed by his ambitious and jealous brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) who takes Gudrun for his wife and sends his henchmen to kill Amleth. The boy manages to escape and eventually makes his way to Russia where he falls in with a group of berserkers, who ravage and pillage across the country. When Amleth learns that Fjolnir has been overthrown and lost his kingdom he sets out on a mission of vengeance. He learns that Fjolnir lives in exile in a remote area of Iceland where he rules over a band of slaves who work his farm. He integrates himself into the slave population and bides his time until he can exact his revenge. He meets fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, from The Witch, etc), who claims to be a “white witch” and who helps him plot his bloody revenge. And as Amleth bides his time and hesitates to act, the Hamlet similarities become more apparent and the pace begins to lag.

The film has been shot on location in both Ireland and Iceland, and the latter’s stark and hostile landscapes add immeasurably to the bleak nature of this tale. The film has been superbly shot by regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who uses natural lighting to good effect, giving the material a foreboding quality. Blaschke also uses close ups to good effect to convey a character’s internal torment and emotions. In some scenes the colour has been leeched out and the film is almost black and white, a technique that Eggers uses to give the material a mystical and almost supernatural feel. The music score from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is atmospheric, and complements the epic scope and sweep of Eggers’ vision.

Eggers has invested plenty of research into Norse history and the mythology of the Vikings to ensure authenticity. Eggers and his production team have brought the rugged Viking era to life. The battle scenes are quite brutal and superbly staged by Eggers. Eggers’ first two films were decidedly arthouse in style, but The Northman is more mainstream and ambitious, but it retains some of his idiosyncratic touches. And even though this is the biggest budget (reportedly $90 million) Eggers has had to work with the limitations become apparent.

There are plenty of sword fights and lots of bloodletting and sex in this violent tale. The final confrontation between Amleth and Fjolnir takes place at the foot of an active volcano, and the fiery contrast of black and red colours gives it a surreal feel.

A seriously buffed and bearded (and quite often shirtless) Skarsgard gives a physical, almost primal performance of naked energy and rage here. Kidman has an ethereal quality as Gudrun although her accent tends to wander a bit. The supporting cast also includes Willem Dafoe, Hawke, and Icelandic singer Bjork in small roles.

There have been many other cinematic explorations of vikings, from the 1958 film starring Kirk Douglas through to the recent TV series, but The Northman is a visceral experience unlike any other, that cements Eggers’ reputation as a visual stylist.

Greg King

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