The Northman is an epic the likes of which we hardly see in Hollywood anymore, carefully curated by a master of the medium & packed with powerhouse performances.
From his very first feature film, it’s been clear that Robert Eggers is a bit of a rulebreaker. Whether it comes to tackling shocking or seemingly taboo subject matter or turning in scripts that are often borderline incomprehensible to those who aren’t well versed in 17th or 19th Century English, there’s no denying that Eggers has quickly established his own signature style in today’s cinematic space (which is no small feat), advancing to become one of the most defining auteurs of the era, who is beholden to no artistic restriction. And, as a result of knocking it out of the park twice in a row with cinephiles and critics with 2016’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, Eggers was granted his least creative constraints yet with this year’s The Northman.
Along with differing in distribution from his first two films (both of which were distributed by A24, while Northman is in the fine hands of Focus Features), The Northman comes with a $90 million budget – over 20x The Witch’s and 9x The Lighthouse’s – and a runtime of nearly 2 ½ hours, while The Witch and The Lighthouse ran for 93 minutes and 109 minutes, respectively. Since the start, we’ve known that The Northman was going to be a story told on an unprecedented scale for Eggers, but while some artists achieve new professional actualization when their creativity can’t be curbed, others crumble under the pressure of making the jump from indies to blockbusters and meeting studio demands. Luckily, Eggers is no such artist, delivering his best film to date with The Northman – an epic the likes of which we hardly see in Hollywood anymore, carefully curated by a master of the medium.
Our chaotic chronicle commences as a young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) awaits the arrival of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, of The Before Trilogy and Moon Knight), from war. Injured, Aurvandill confides in his wife and Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, of Big Little Lies and Being the Ricardos) that he must start showing Amleth the ways of the world in preparation of possibly becoming king himself someday soon, with these teachings being relayed by Aurvandill’s friend – and local “fool” – Heimir (Willem Dafoe, of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Aquaman). However, upon leaving their communion, Aurvandill and Amleth are attacked by Fjölnir (Claes Bang, of The Square and The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Aurvandill’s brother and Amleth’s uncle, with the former succumbing to his slaughter and the latter escaping to the ocean, vowing to return to avenge his father and save his mother.
Years later, we find that Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, of True Blood and Passing) has taken up with a pack of traveling raiders, abandoning his quest in favor of mindlessly savage and superficial pursuits. But a chance meeting with the Seeress (Björk, of Dancer in the Dark) reminds him of his true purpose, sending him back to his homeland, where he discovers that Fjölnir has lost his family’s kingdom and is now instead a feudal lord, with Gudrún as his wife, who has bore his son. Posing as a slave, Amleth slowly integrates himself into Fjölnir’s feudal community, where he also falls for fellow slave – and sorceress – Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Queen’s Gambit and Last Night in Soho) who shows him an alternative path in life, one defined by hope instead of hurt. Yet can he ever escape the emotional corruption that has consumed him since childhood, or is violence doomed to beget more violence until the end of time?
As soon as this story starts, audiences are instantly enraptured by the immensely eerie yet utterly enthralling aesthetic Robert Eggers is so famously known for – combining Jarin Blaschke’s consummate cinematography with staggering sound work from James Boyle, James Harrison, and Steve Little, and Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan’s striking score – as his trusted crew is not only firing on all cylinders but additionally operating at a higher level than ever before as a result of being given their greatest cinematic canvas yet. Every shot is a sumptuous masterwork, fully immersing us in these brutal yet oddly beautiful environments, so that we too can see the dawn of the sun as distinctly as Amleth and his fellow slaves or hear the horrific hacking-and-slashing as if such slayings were happening only a few feet away. Few creatives have such a commendable command over the synthesis of cinematic sights and sounds as Robert Eggers does, and that’s the first thing that separates The Northman from similar historical revenge sagas like Braveheart or Gladiator – for starters, none of ‘em look or sound as good as this one.
Similarly, though The Northman clearly takes after the set-up of a famous Shakespearean play (Amleth = Hamlet, anyone?), Eggers and co-writer Sjón (Lamb) do enough to differentiate their take on the classic tale (despite Amleth serving as inspiration for the tragedy of Prince Hamlet in the first place) to shape a story that stands on its own. Structurally, the passage of time added between Aurvandill’s passing and Amleth’s revenge serves to make his mission more meaningful and monumental, while an additional character arc for Kidman’s Gudrún (this adventure’s alternate for Hamlet’s Gertrude) and an entirely original character in the form of Taylor-Joy’s love interest Olga not only fine-tune the female players in Amleth’s (*cough* Hamlet’s *cough*) life but also present him with new quandaries to consider. His relationship with Olga in particular is not only conceptually riveting from start-to-finish but ultimately unbearably emotionally resonant, as he’s forced to choose between a potentially prosperous future with her or putting away the pains of his past for good, with ruinous results.
Likewise, Eggers and Sjón cleverly complicate Amleth’s crusade to avoid advocating for a message that revenge or violence is in any way rewarding or fulfilling, most notably with tragic third act revelations that completely reframe Amleth’s entire expedition – and existence – up until this point, assuring that every action that follows is accompanied by a piercing prescience indicating that Amleth will never achieve the alleviation from this anguish that he so desires. The two also candidly challenge the suggestion that one’s fate is set in stone, especially via Taylor-Joy’s Olga, as she pleads with Amleth to remember that he has a choice in life and can break this cycle of violence, releasing him and everyone else from this collective enmity. Eggers and Sjón compassionately characterize the viking culture of the era to show what belief systems they subscribe to and why, but they simultaneously establish an engrossing dialogue between tradition and philosophical transformation, making this the rare revenge epic that has more on its mind than murder.
Every actor in this exhilarating ensemble is similarly at the top of their game, no matter how many scenes they star in, led by Alexander Skarsgård in an awe-inspiring animalistic turn as the assiduous Amleth, prevailing when it comes to portraying his protagonist’s propulsive physicality but excelling just as efficiently when it comes to his essential emoting in the affecting third act, bringing a greater insight into just how broken this behemoth of a man truly is. Though most of the movie does center around his titular Northman, every other performer matches his might when asked to contribute their piece to the plot, from Willem Dafoe and Björk with startling near-single-scene performances, to Ethan Hawke’s admirable ardor as King Aurvandill, to Claes Bang’s frigid ferocity as Fjölnir, to Anya Taylor-Joy’s opulent optimism as Olga, and, last but not least, to the glorious Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún, who all but steals the show in one momentous monologue to Skarsgård’s Amleth as things start to head south in the homestretch, uprooting our entire perception of her part in a way only an adept actress as she can do.
Stylistically and thematically, The Northman is undeniably Robert Eggers’ crowning achievement as a director to date, with the auteur succeeding at shaping a raucous revenge saga that stirs the soul as much as it stuns one’s senses. Paired with his positively capable cast and crew, Eggers brings this era back to life in fierce fashion, throwing us into a time and place filled with ferality and fatality but not devoid of faith for a better future, delivering a dark depiction of the sobering struggle between fate and free will. After making a name for himself in the indie world and now leveling up to blockbuster fare with ravishing results, it remains to be seen what challenges are left for Robert Eggers to conquer, but it’s safe to say that, if The Northman is any indication, he’s unquestionably up for the task.
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