THE NORTHMAN: A Tale As Old As Time

You may have never heard of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, but you’re likely familiar with his story regardless. After all, the medieval saga of a prince out for revenge against the uncle who murdered his father and stole his throne was the direct inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, right down to the anagram used for the hero’s name. Needless to say, it’s a tale most of us have seen told before on stage and screen…but perhaps not quite like this.

The third feature film directed by Robert Eggers (following The Witch and The Lighthouse), The Northman violently embraces all of the hallucinatory magic and rampant bloodshed of Scandinavian lore in bringing Amleth’s story to the screen. Co-written with Icelandic writer and lyricist Sjón⁠ — a frequent collaborator of Björk, who introduced him to Eggers and makes her long-awaited return to the screen here ⁠— The Northman isn’t exactly telling an original story, but it is an enjoyable one, especially if you’re already a fan of Eggers’ incredibly immersive cinematic style.

Death Before Dishonor

The film opens with the long-awaited return of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) to his kingdom on the Northern Atlantic island of Hrafnsey. Here, he is reunited with his queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and his young son and heir, Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak).

After spending the entire night undergoing a super-freaky spiritual ritual led by the jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe), the king and his son emerge into the bright light of day only to be ambushed by the king’s bastard brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir and his men kill Aurvandill and raid his kingdom, murdering innocent villagers and making off with Gudrún as a prize. But Amleth manages to escape, rowing himself to safety across the stormy sea and fiercely declaring through his grief, “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

THE NORTHMAN: A Tale As Old As Time
source: Focus Features

Years later, Amleth is a Viking warrior (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) who seems more animal than man, howling with bloodlust under a wolfskin as he raids a village in the faraway land of Rus. However, a chance encounter with a seeress (Björk, doing incredible Björk things that only Björk can do) reminds Amleth of his sworn quest for revenge.

Turns out, Fjölnir has lost the throne for which he committed the sin of fratricide, and is now living in exile in Iceland with Gudrún and his two sons. So, Amleth smuggles himself aboard a ship of slaves bound for Fjölnir’s farm, befriending a Slavic witch named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and settling the wheels of fate back in motion. But the path to vengeance is full of bumps and twists, and reminders that the stories one believes as a child do not always match up with the endings one encounters as an adult.

Visions and Nightmares

From Jarin Blaschke’s gorgeous location cinematography to Craig Lathrop’s incredibly detailed production design, The Northman transports the audience through time and space to a long-lost land of sorcery and savagery. Every frame is splattered with mud and mead and blood, and the battle scenes are awesome to behold. However, the film’s most thrilling imagery is also some of its most fantastical: the vision of the tree of kings that traces Amleth’s noble bloodline, the Valkyrie who Amleth dreams will escort him to Valhalla, the undead king who Amleth must fight for custody of the sword he is fated to wield.

More than any other up-and-coming director working right now, Eggers — who began his creative career as a production designer ⁠— is capable of making the atmosphere of the movie theater around you so totally melt away that even the sounds of crying children and crunching popcorn cannot pull you back to your present reality before the end credits begin to roll. It helps that Eggers has surrounded himself with an established company of brilliant craftspeople; both Blaschke and Lathrop worked on The Witch and The Lighthouse, and deserve nearly as much credit as the director for rendering the wild, weird worlds of these films so utterly immersive. Whether or not you want to be there is something else altogether, but I personally have enjoyed each and every trip they have taken me on.

THE NORTHMAN: A Tale As Old As Time
source: Focus Features

This willingness to go as far as humanly possible to make his films feel authentic to the period in which they take place extends to Eggers’ screenwriting. From the archaic dialogue in The Witch (much of which was pulled straight from historical accounts of witchcraft) to the saltwater-soaked sailor slang of The Lighthouse, the characters in his films can often be difficult to understand. The Northman is not nearly as borderline-incomprehensible as those previous films, but it does feature enough throaty growling and hoarse howling to give one sympathy pains in the throat⁠ — not to mention, plenty of epic declarations about meeting one’s enemies at the Gates of Hel, natch. Some of it feels a bit silly, but in a way that I personally quite enjoyed. After all, who wouldn’t get all riled up to destroy one’s enemies after hearing some of Skarsgård’s full-blooded monologues?

Speaking of Skarsgård, who co-produced The Northman and for whom starring in a Viking saga has been a longtime goal: he is excellent as Amleth. While much will be (and has been) made of his extreme physical transformation for this film, one should not let his outrageous muscles distract you from what is a truly powerful performance. (Okay, the muscles can distract you a little bit.) The rest of the cast is also remarkable, but that shouldn’t be a surprise considering the names filling it out: from Kidman as the icy, secretive Gudrún to Bang as the menacing Fjölnir to Dafoe as the wonderfully weird Heimir, the actors in The Northman bring out all of the hidden complexities in characters that are otherwise archetypes cut and pasted from the legend of Amleth and other ancient Viking tales. Taylor-Joy in particular is a delight to watch as the ethereal Olga; her unusual beauty and otherworldly presence add some important feminine energy to the story and ensure that you’ll find yourself missing her whenever she happens to not be on screen. This is her second collaboration with Eggers following The Witch, and needless to say, I cannot wait to see what they do together in their upcoming reimagining of Nosferatu.

Conclusion

Both beautiful and brutal, The Northman is a saga worth seeing.

What do you think? What is your favorite Robert Eggers movie so far? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Northman was released in theaters in the UK on April 15 and in the U.S. on April 22, 2022. You can find more international release dates here.


Watch The Northman

Powered by JustWatch

 

Does content like this matter to you?


Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Posted by Contributor