With his first two films, acclaimed American director Robert Eggers constructed exquisite chamber pieces - the horror masterpiece 'The Witch' (2015) and the sublime Lovecraftian fable 'The Lighthouse' (2019). In both cases, a small unit of characters found themselves trapped in bizarre circumstances, where the supernatural made manifest their deepest anxieties. What has categorised Eggers work in only these two films is an uncompromising attention to detail and the collision between mythological storytelling and human psychology. These elements are certainly at play in his third film, 'The Northman', but this time across a gigantic canvas. Where his first films were intimate to the point of claustrophobia, 'The Northman' is an epic the kind of which we rarely see these days - an ambitious evocation of Vikings and Norse mythology on an almost cripplingly ambitious scale.
Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist Sjón, 'The Northman' is inspired by the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, whose story formed the basis of William Shakespeare's legendary play 'Hamlet'. After seeing his father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke, 'First Reformed') murdered by the king's bastard brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, 'The Square'), exiled prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, 'Melancholia') vows to one day avenge his father, kill his uncle and save his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, 'The Beguiled'), whom Fjölnir has taken as his wife. After growing into manhood within a tribe of Vikings, Amleth disguises himself as a slave in order to infiltrate the home of his disgraced uncle in the wilds of Iceland. Along with Slavic slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, 'The Witch', 'Emma.'), Amleth begins to devise a plan to destroy his uncle, a plan bound to a mythical sword gifted to him to complete his bloody quest for revenge.
SWITCH: 'THE NORTHMAN' TRAILER
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the execution of 'The Northman' further solidifies Eggers and his collaborators as among the most exciting filmmakers working today. Rather than falling into the usual visual tropes of epic cinema post-'The Lord of the Rings', Eggers and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke apply their exacting lens to capturing the wild fury of a forgotten century. The camera doesn’t sweep across these landscapes of wilderness and human bodies as much as slice across them, moving with a cold insistence that matches the violence of the images it captures. What is most striking about 'The Northman' compared to Eggers' other films is its playful use of colour, oscillating between monochrome and startling richness within the same frame. The world of 895 BCE is one of natural untamed purity, and Eggers is as much interested in the natural world as a character, participant and context in this film as he was in his previous work. Though there is some awkward but necessary CGI additions, it's very clear when we're seeing nature itself at work, with actors submitted to the full force of the elements. This brings an authenticity to the film, but in the case of 'The Northman', unlocks a necessary fury as well. The camera, the design, the writing and the performances all have a healthy dose of the insane to them, where the considered politeness of the modern world collapses and the primal can be expressed. Perhaps this is why Eggers has worked entirely within period settings (and why he is one of the best at exploring them) - that they allow him to dig beneath formality and reveal the animalism buried inside us. That animalism is intrinsic to the power of 'The Northman' as it revels in unbridled masculine power as an act of domination and of hubris.
As far as a piece of storytelling, 'The Northman' excels in many ways, but also falls short in many others. The basic structure of the film, divided into chapters, has the feel of an epic novel or poem, maintaining the great tradition of Norse storytelling such as 'Beowulf' or the tales of the Ring Cycle that the film is drawing from. This is important, because Eggers is one of the few directors who can expertly aim for both intense naturalism and the supernatural in a manner that never feels disjointed. His work delves deep into traditional and primal myths (witchcraft, mermaids, the Norse Gods) and offers us a window through which to understand where they came from and (more importantly) why they were believed in the first place. So much of 'The Northman' hinges on the idea of honour, revenge and destiny as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour as defined by the expectations of the Gods, and the very real presence of the divine within the film contextualises Amleth’s extreme determination to avenge his father. Where 'Gladiator' (2000) explored this in a gentle, subtextual fashion, 'The Northman' places it front and centre, opening up the emotional, thematic and aesthetic scale of the film. This becomes necessary to support what is a crushingly serious (at times, pompously so) screenplay weighed heavily with thick, complex dialogue. You have to admire Eggers and Sjón’s commitment to maintaining the sense and sound of the great Norse epics, and I certainly wouldn't want the film any other way, but there are certainly moments where the weight of it all can become tedious.
At its best, 'The Northman' is a narrative and experiential assault, not just in its extraordinary action set pieces but in some of its more powerful character moments, but these feel robbed of intensity when cushioned by dead air.
These issues could perhaps have been sated with a breakneck approach, but the film does overstay its welcome a tad. While Eggers' considered pacing only helped to amplify the tension and horror of both 'The Witch' and 'The Lighthouse', here it leaves too much breathing space for the audience to disappear through. At its best, 'The Northman' is a narrative and experiential assault, not just in its extraordinary action set pieces but in some of its more powerful character moments, but these feel robbed of intensity when cushioned by dead air. That isn't to say that 'The Northman' ever loses your attention - the world of the film and the beauty of its craft prevents that - but rather than holding your eye as he has before, Eggers does give reason occasionally for your eye to wander.
Much like the film, the performances also balance the sublime with the messy. Alexander Skarsgård brings an astonishing animalistic intensity and physicality to Amleth, but his performances misses the last ounce of charisma to really sell the character. He had a similar problem in 'The Legend of Tarzan' (2016), whereas his other work in film and television is often excellent. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but it's disappointing that his work and Eggers' intense focus on detail weren’t able to find middle ground. Claes Bang also feels a little at sea as Fjölnir with a film this big, and while Ethan Hawke is certainly the strongest of the male performances, he also feels like he's inches away from really nailing it. The supporting performances fair much better, with Anya Taylor-Joy quickly falling back into step with Eggers' style, as does Willem Dafoe as King Aurvandil’s friend Heimir, a wonderfully strange and bombastic performance. The highlights though come from Björk as the Slavic Seeress who launches Amlith on his quest, a beautifully haunting and unnerving scene that feels pulled right from the myths themselves, and of course the ever-incredible Nicole Kidman, whose quiet intensity as Queen Gudrún cracks open in a monologue of such spite and menace as befitting an actor as legendary as her. What does trip up all the performers through is the insistence on accents, something that never feels as consistent as it should be. The issue is less clarity of dialogue than clarity of intent; this inconsistency detracts from the verisimilitude of the world Eggers is creating, so it's unclear why the film feels the need to commit to them.
It’s also unfortunate that 'The Northman' should come so close on the heels of David Lowry’s majestic masterpiece 'The Green Knight' (2021), with the two films sharing a number of aesthetic and thematic ideas. Both deal with a protagonist whose single-mindedness leads them down a dangerous path, but while the decisions in filmmaking and performance in 'The Green Knight' are specific, exacting and in service of the film, similar choices in 'The Northman' lack that clarity. Then again, perhaps the comparison is unfair, and you have to give Robert Eggers enormous credit for stepping so far out of his comfort zone. That he should have the opportunity to execute a film of this scale is extraordinary and must be celebrated. Even if he is overextending his reach, he only misses the mark on occasion and his reach is wildly, wonderful ambitious. It doesn’t dampen the fact that he is still one of the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged in the last decade, and any film he makes will be an event to anticipate.
Even with its shortfalls, I still found myself deeply taken by 'The Northman'. With so much of Norse mythology now co-opted into the superhero genre, it's thrilling to see it pulled onto the screen from the deep dark past, pulsating with mud and blood and sweat. There's real passion and commitment to this film, a belief that such a film can still exist in the current film landscape. It's somewhat of a mess, but it's a beautiful mess nonetheless.