Review: 'The Northman' (2022) Dir. Robert Eggers
Influenced by a story of Amleth, who also inspired the works of William Shakespeare, this Old Norse story is a bloody, brutal journey that brings physical and spiritual Viking lore to life...
King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Kidman) live a strong, powerful life on the isle of Hrafnsey with their son, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak). Aurvandill prepares Amleth for the destiny he will one day meet - avenging his death and taking the crown as a new King.
However, betrayal and deception tear the family apart, and Amleth is forced on the run to avoid his murderous Uncle Fjölnir (Bang) who wants the crown for himself. Growing up as a berserker savage, Amleth (Skarsgård) sets his life to finding Fjölnir and taking his revenge.
Finding a path to Fjölnir will not be easy, and he delves deep into the spiritual world to help him, including Slavic slave Olga (Taylor-Joy), who make Amleth see that his journey will be brutal, and he will face his true destiny to survive and honour his family name...
Robert Eggers brings us his third feature film as director and co-writer, following 2015s The Witch and 2019s The Lighthouse. This interpretation of 'The legend of Amleth' by Saxo Grammaticus, which originally served as inspiration for William Shakespeare's Macbeth, is full of Eggers' cinematic style and storytelling. The Northman is not for mass audiences. On the premise of a swords and sandals epic, this is not a historical story that has been made with Hollywood grandeur such as Gladiator or King Arthur. No, this is something far different and much more faithful to the original lore of the Vikings, in everything from the physical to the spiritual. In bringing so much authenticity to the screen, it is not a film that relies on swashbuckling action, a rousing score and immersive CGI world creation with rustic heroes and villains. At the same time it will not make easy viewing for those not wanting to fully immerse themselves in a culture often presented in a more bombastic way.
The story is a simple one; revenge. Though it is not a journey set across sprawling cities and taking down Empires or armies, it's much more personal than that. This is a bloody, muddy and dirty journey. It is one where we scrabble in the shadows, see illumination by fire light and watch as blood is shed in small farms and hamlets. Everything from the set design to the costumes, the props and make-up / hair is as you could only imagine, with no room for bedazzled jewels, palaces or decorative armour.
Eggers keeps the story grounded, much like the elements we see on screen that plays to the Viking themes of being human, being one with nature and respecting the power of Earth and spirits around you.
Alexander Skarsgård is a beast of a man. He brings Amleth to life as a protagonist who is never a clean cut hero. He's a young man forced into a dangerous world full of betrayal, death and sorcery, growing up in the wild to become a savage; a beast. A man who knows no pleasure in life and lives only for bloodlust and revenge. From the opening introduction, we are on this journey with Amleth, and Skarsgård makes it very easy to see him as the born warrior, with his visible strength and animalistic Viking rage. From rowing a boat down a gentle stream, to traversing an active volcano bloodied and bruised, Amleth has a path to follow as epic as any hero, but without the sheen and polish of your usual hero.
He is supported by a solid turn by Anya Taylor-Joy as young slave-cum-sorceress Olga in seeking out the villainous Dane Claes Bang and his family. A wonderful turn by Nicole Kidman as his mother, Queen Gudrún, holds both sides of Amleth together; the family man and the beast, and it's clear how such a strong, often controlling character like this influenced Shakespeare's creations. Keep an eye out for Eggar's favourite Willem Dafoe channelling his best kind of crazy, and a creepy turn by Icelandic star Björk as a blind Seeress. All look and sound just as you'd want, with lots of Old Norse language and references to greater Gods and spirits.
The action is accompanied by a haunting and often eerie score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough who use very traditional instruments to create tension and atmosphere, via a beating drum or drawn string. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, of The Lighthouse fame, is back to use very fixed and established shots that let us see everything we need to on screen, in often claustrophobic environments where you see and feel each word, drop of blood or flicker of flame (the final few shots are remarkable). It's not as dreamy as The Lighthouse, but then this is not a surreal work of art, more an authentic one that is devoted to creating the Old Norse world. Practical effects and design work so much more in this tale, and nothing looks artificial or fake. Even the more ethereal elements of the story are done with as much practical majesty as possible.
The battles are few and far between, never rising to dramatic CGI excess. It pits handfuls of worn, weary men who live to kill and kill to live against each other, and there are enough grizzly moments and gruesome kills to solidify the brutality and realism that weaves it's way through this often powerful but visually immersive story.
'The Northman' is savage, Viking stuff, not for mainstream audiences to allow less excess and more creative storytelling. It's just a shame this may pass people by due to that, as it's an Old Norse world we've not experienced on screen for a long time.
'The Northman' is a co-production between Regency Enterprises, Perfect World Pictures, New Regency and Square Peg