The Northman Review: The Savage Viking Revenge Thriller From The Lighthouse Director Is Ferocious Excellence
Robert Eggers movies are instruments of time travel. Any screen projecting 2015’s The Witch becomes a window that lets us peer into the world of 1630s New England, and 2019’s The Lighthouse does the same thing with the same region 260 years later – both films bleeding authenticity even when veering into fantasy and the supernatural. His latest, The Northman, once again replicates this fascinating immersion, albeit this time while outfitting audiences with a Doctor Who-esque universal translator that lets you hear Old Norse as English.
Of course, Eggers’ great skill delivered alongside the remarkable, realistic aesthetics is his ability to layer in genre storytelling – and in this respect, The Northman is his most compelling film yet. In cinematically wrangling a centuries-old Viking myth, the director and co-writer Sjón execute a cold blooded and savage revenge tale that delivers powerful, emotional, and personal stakes while also examining the price of a life dedicated to vengeance. It’s both Eggers’ most intense and most accessible movie of the three he’s made, and matches visceral filmmaking with tremendous performances from an ensemble cast led by Alexander Skarsgård.
The Northman is the legend of Amleth, the story that inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and with a prayer to Odin the film opens on the North Atlantic in 895 AD as the hero as a young boy (Oscar Novak) anticipates the long-awaited arrival of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). The king has been away at war for almost all of Amleth’s life, but upon his return and reunion with Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), he initiates the prince into adulthood.
Son and father form a tight bond, forged with an oath of vengeance should the monarch be slain by an enemy’s sword, but tragically their time together is short. Amleth’s uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), commits treason and conspires with a small group to brutally assassinate the king. Their plan is to also kill the prince, but he manages to escape after slicing off the nose of one of Fjölnir’s men (Eldar Skar). Amleth is presumed dead, but in reality he takes a boat and rows to safety – swearing to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.
Decades later, an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has become a ferocious and animalistic Viking, part of a clan that raids villages and sells hostages as slaves. Following a violent and successful pillage, he has an encounter with an eyeless seeress (Björk) who prophesies his retribution, and he overhears that an allotment of prisoners are to be brought to a sheep farm in Iceland owned by Fjölnir – who himself has had his crown stolen. Amleth sneaks on to a departing ship, his clandestine arrival noticed only by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl from the village he destroyed, and he plots to work among the slaves until it is time to reveal his true identity, rescue his mother, and murder Fjölnir.
The Northman caroms between being brutal and breathtaking, and never takes its hand from your throat.
The Northman wastes no time filling your eyes with spectacle, its opening frames showcasing a volcano mid-eruption as a booming voice calls to the king of the Norse gods, and while the story is ultimately an intimate affair, your mind is frequently treated to breathtaking visions of nature that enhance the scale of the movie with their majesty. There is a complete lack of opulence, as everything from the costuming to the production design feels dirty and of the Earth, and it provides a feral power to the background of the hero’s quest. It’s raw.
The amazement that it inspires in capturing our world in an ancient age is further enhanced by an ever-simmering rage in the film’s tone. It’s a horror movie in a much broader sense than The Witch or The Lighthouse, but it’s no less shocking, as Robert Eggers frequently unfurls moments of barbarity and dark mysticism that provide full body gooseflesh and compel whispering “Holy shit” in a dark theater. You get a pretty good sense of what you’re getting with the introduction of Amleth as an adult, as a remarkable invasion sequence sees him cutting down enemies and ripping out a throat with his teeth, but that, pun absolutely intended, proves just to be the appetizer.
Your jaw is so often left gaping in awe from its stunning cinematography and in terror from its ferocity to the point you might just resign yourself to keeping it open for the duration of the film.
Alexander Skarsgård vanishes in terrifying fashion, delivering one of the best dramatic performances of his career.
The unrelenting nature of The Northman could be a total turnoff that makes you just want to run to the closest shower, but a huge part of the film that keeps its hooks in you is Alexander Skarsgård’s performance. Given what we’ve seen from him over the course of his career, it was really only a matter of time before a big screen project came along that would let him fully show off his dramatic skills, and his turn here grabs your attention like a wolf growling and bearing its teeth five inches from your face. He wholly embodies the Viking prince, and it’s both a phenomenal and scary thing to see.
What makes it all the more impressive is that it’s not just all overflowing id, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga has a lot to do with that. It was her performance in The Witch that first turned heads in the industry, and once again Robert Eggers gets magic out of her (literally). Her confidence, cunning, and general witchiness is magnetic, and properly reflected in her relationship with Amleth – which ends up creating layers in Skarsgård’s turn, with his character torn between his oath to his father and a potential path to a happy, violence-free life with the woman he grows to love.
The cast is full of surprises and treats, from Nicole Kidman making some big choices that bizarrely work, to Willem Dafoe being an impish delight, but The Northman is Alexander Skarsgård’s show, and he is impressive.
Robert Eggers takes a familiar revenge story and makes it feel fresh and passionate.
Narratively speaking, The Northman isn’t particularly complex, featuring familiar revenge story beats as Amleth affirms the fate foretold to him by the seeress, but it’s made with such passion and virility that it’s hypnotizing and just feels special. It’s a work that further solidifies Robert Eggers as a modern auteur, and while it’s everything you want it to be as a continuation of his career, it’s also a film that will hopefully expose his talents to an even wider audience – further expanding his ability to make any movie that he wants to make.