“The Northman” (2022) – “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.” – Amleth (Oscar Novak)
Director Robert Eggers, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also worked on Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019)), and the production team fill “The Northman” with glorious, jaw-dropping sequences over 136 minutes, but be warned; several moments are soaked in blood and littered with hyper-violence. “The Northman” is a visceral Viking epic, initially set in 895 A.D., that will delight cinephiles, action-adventure types, the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, and Eggers fans.
Eggers lathers his creation with grand visual astonishments, like an active volcano spewing lava, ships pounding against angry seas, afterlife experiences, and a merciless village attack that our director appears to shoot in one take. While he and Blaschke hypnotize audiences with majestic, masterclass tentpole visuals, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough entrance us with their brooding, ominous score. The movie also skulks in the mud with ferocious close-quarter confrontations where sharp steel spills innards and clubs bash skulls.
Is this film for the weak of heart and those who regularly expel the words “toxic masculinity” on social media with the frequency of breathing? Nope, these folks should sit this one out because the recurring mano a mano bludgeoning emotionally spills into the suddenly-not-so-comfy theatre seats. Nightmares could last for weeks!
Look, at this film’s heart, soul, and pineal gland, “The Northman” is a revenge picture.
During an April 19, 2022 Collider interview, Eggers explains, “When I decided that I might want to make a Viking movie with Alex Skarsgard, I came across the story of “Amleth” which inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. And that was great, because this is a myth that everybody knows.”
Admittedly, no one morphs into a 6-foot snake nor sings “Hakuna Matata”, but in plain terms, story-wise, this movie feels like “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) meets “The Lion King” (1994).
In the first act, a young Amleth – possibly 11 years old – witnesses his father’s (Ethan Hawke) murder. Amleth’s uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) slays King Aurvandil War-Raven (Hawke), and he takes Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) for himself. Amleth vows vengeance, as noted in the aforementioned quote. Years later, the boy returns as a man (Alexander Skarsgard) with a hulking physique on a 6’4” frame and bloodlust in his eyes. Skarsgard’s Amleth is utterly convincing as a 10th-century berserker, complete with synapses that fire beastly commands of slaughter, massacre, and mayhem.
Amleth is a combatant to be feared, although he’s not a memorable orator, because after experiencing this primitive time-warp for over two hours, this critic cannot exactly recite one line uttered by Skarsgard. Not one, which is quite a feat, since Skarsgard plays the lead.
Still, his performance leaves a lasting mark, led by Amleth’s one-track mind of deadly retaliation, screams, scowls, blows, and butchery. It’s a magnetic, physical performance for the ages but not necessarily one that connects emotionally. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a Nordic slave siren of sorts, Olga of the Birch Forest, who tames this wild beast, and like Skarsgard, she offers a memorable physical presence on-screen. Taylor-Joy and her co-star deliver believable chemistry, but all along, it feels like their relationship is a telegraphed, temporary interruption of Amleth’s ultimate confrontation with Fjolnir. In other words, we know – or at least we think we recognize – how this story will end.
Fjolnir is the prime antagonist of the picture, but Bang’s performance and the script surprisingly offer sympathy for the King’s brother. Life has humbled Amleth’s uncle over time. Fjolnir does not seem like a ruthless sicko, but forgiveness is not in Amleth’s vocabulary, and yes, Aurvandil was slain. Can’t forget or forgive that. In the 100-plus minutes leading up to the eventual clash, the tonal tension between the two men isn’t as palatable as one might hope. Still, the desire for lethal payback is a one-man journey, as our lead’s trek bursts with pragmatic Darwinism and pockets of mysticism and spirituality for good measure and eye candy.
Granted, the muddy, grassy, chilly, and barren terrain is an unforgiving sight. Eggers and his team filmed in Ireland and Iceland, and on more than one occasion, you may mutter to yourself, “This shoot looks miserable. Hopefully, there’s a Starbucks within an hour’s drive for the poor actors and filmmakers on set.”
No question, “The Northman” is a spectacular visual and audio achievement that transports the audience to 1,100 years ago when people worshiped pagans deities and scoffed at safety regulations. (No, you won’t find a seatbelt on any horses.)
Life during the 9th and 10th-century was rough, and that message will sear into your permanent memory due to the Oscar-worthy technical craftsmanship. Still, the emotional connection to Amleth’s journey doesn’t quite resonate, even though we marvel at the man’s unrelenting steps towards (hopeful) eye-for-eye justice.
Ah well, perhaps in a deleted scene, Amleth recites “What is best in life.”
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Sjon and Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, and Willem Dafoe
Running time: 136 minutes
Image credits: Focus Features