Unapologetic and singularly made, Robert Eggers’ The Northman digs deep into Norse mythology and Viking times with stunning visuals and a cast fully invested in the journey.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth. As a child, Amleth witnessed his father the King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) assassinated by the king’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Able to escape, Amleth swears to avenge his father, save his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and kill Fjölnir.
Living as a Viking warrior, Amleth is shown his destiny by a seeress (Björk) and learns Fjölnir has been exiled to Iceland. Amleth smuggles aboard a slave ship and encounters Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic slave who claims to be a sorceress. The two are able to make their way onto Fjölnir’s farm.
Guided by vengeance, and assisted by spirits and ancestors, Amleth sets forth to do what is needed to avenge his father, save his mother, kill Fjölnir and ascend to Valhalla.
Eggers puts a significant amount of effort into Viking accuracy while also presenting a film full of mysticism and spirituality. That does not mean magic and spirits solve all the problems, but rather act as a facilitator to move the plot forward. Expect battles with skeletons and helpful ravens sent by Odin.
This mix of hyper-realism and fantasy allows for the film to flow with a sense of unexpectedness. The general plot is very basic, but the steps and side roads taken along the way is almost as entertaining as the near-inevitable conclusion. That’s the real triumph that Eggers has achieved. The film is very involved, stylized, and at points downright silly, but it’s never boring. The clean editing and striking visuals move the 2:17 minute runtime fly by. Frankly, I wanted more of this world. It’s all so captivating.
Skarsgård is a monstrous force of nature. The role doesn’t need him to give Amleth any more depth than he already has. He is a man of singular thought and nothing can distract him from that goal. His striking physicality is on full display. You never once believe he is anything other than a vengeance-seeking Viking. Taylor-Joy gets to balance the lowly nature of being a woman in these times while also preserving an ambitious spirit that would attract Amleth. Her tenderness balances Amleth’s brutality.
Kidman plays possum better than any living actress. On paper, it’s a stock role of a beautiful woman standing next to a king, but Kidman gets her chance to reveal her nature and makes it sing. You don’t hire Nicole Kidman to do nothing, and it’s no surprise Eggers and co-screenwriter Sjón give her some substance. Bang mostly gets to be intimidating, but does have a few narrative tricks. Fjölnir is not just a plainly evil character and Bang does a great job exploring those depths.
Hawke, Wilem Dafoe, and Björk all have fun glorified cameos. Dafoe gets to be wacky, Björk gets to be mysterious, and Hawke gets to be weirdly noble. All of this is in service to entertainment. It might be unorthodox and it probably will rub some people the wrong way, but it was massively entertaining.
The costume design is top notch without being too flashy; lots of simple colors and thick furs. The cinematography from Jarin Blaschke (Oscar nominated for Eggers’ The Lighthouse) is brilliant without feeling forced. It’s easy to get these incredible shots when Icelandic volcanoes temper the background.
Eggers continues to be a singular directorial voice. His vision is one of clear eyes and commitment to the story he wants to tell. I doubt I will forget it anytime soon.
The Northman is now playing in theaters.