The Northman (2022)
Conquer Your Fate
Director Robert Eggers has stated that in making The Northman, he hoped to achieve the ultimate Viking Epic. Although it is difficult to say whether he has succeeded, what remains true of the film is that it is indeed epic in every possible sense — a visually spectacular feast that grips the audience from its opening moments until the arresting finale. Coming out of an impressive run with two smaller budget films, 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, Eggers is given a 90 million USD budget to expand his idiosyncratic world-building into an indelible and violent film that remains recognizable to his arthouse style yet is given the breadth to bring that vision to a mainstream audience.
The story comes from Norse legend. Amleth is a tale that became the boilerplate for ‘Hamlet,’ but Eggers and multi-hyphenate talent Sjón have changed elements of the story drastically. In the original versions, Amleth, after witnessing the slaying of his father, feigns being a fool to later enact revenge on his uncle, who has usurped the kingdom. Eggers and Sjón have done away with the fool Amleth and have replaced him with a hardened warrior consumed by revenge. Arguably as the story plays out, Amleth’s quest for revenge does seem foolish as the cost is unfathomably high and his drive to destroy his uncle is a kind of madness that is ruinous to him.
The year is 895 AD, and Amleth (played as a boy by Oscar Novak) is a young King in training. His father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), has returned from battle with his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth and his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), greet the wounded but triumphant warrior. In Amleth’s eyes, his father is a hero and righteous King who brings glory to the people. Furthermore, Aurvandil is an attentive and loving father who is preparing Amleth’s succession to the throne.
Eggers takes us through some of Amleth’s rites of passage, including a psychedelic encounter with Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), where they ingest hallucinogens and throw off their humanity to see the manifest destiny of their family line. Stylistically, this scene is very much in Eggers’ playbook — the reality and unreality exist at once. For Aurvandil and Amleth, the magic is not metaphor; they believe in their Gods and the forces of the supernatural.
Soon after Aurvandil’s return, Amleth witnesses the treacherous attack of his uncle Fjölnir, who, with a band of loyal men, brutally dispatch Aurvandil and hunt down and try to kill Amleth. Almeth witnesses the coup and sees Fjölnir take his mother, Gudrún, as his new queen. Escaping the kingdom, Amleth vows that he will avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir.
Years pass, and Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) is a muscular Berserker living in the land of Rus. Amleth’s humanity has all but disappeared, and he is a killing machine. Eggers spares the audience little as he takes us through long shots of the Vikings destroying villages and collecting slaves. Skarsgård is an imposing presence both physically and because he is violence personified. Blood and mud-soaked, he fills the frame with menace.
In a sacked village, Amleth encounters a Seeress (played by Björk in her first speaking role in a film since Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) who reminds him of his oath to destroy Fjölnir and restore his family line. She warns him that the revenge will come at a cost, and he will have to sacrifice his kindness and kin. Soon thereafter, he hears that the slaves the Berserkers have captured are destined for Fjölnir, who has lost his kingdom and is rebuilding his community in Iceland. Amleth brands himself a slave and is taken in shackles to the new land.
Fellow captured slave Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes an interest in Amleth as she can see that he is not a sheep but something more. To eventually escape her captors, Olga claims she will use her mind which is as powerful a weapon as Amleth’s brawn. The two become lovers and co-conspirators in Fjölnir’s downfall.
Amleth’s quest for revenge teeters between realism and a fever dream. Eggers spins us in and out of reality in a style so clearly his own. The larger budget allows for sheer magnificence as he takes us through the kingdoms. Vistas are sweeping and glorious. Yet, despite this, they don’t really add to the narrative heft of the film. Ironically, it is the scenes filmed in close quarters that are the most impressive. Eggers excels at the surreal and otherworldly, but this comes mainly through the script. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse (2019), manages to capture both extremes of Eggers’ vision. Still, it is those moments where the camera is close to the action that are more distinctly discombobulating and fascinating.
Alexander Skarsgård, The Legend of Tarzan (2016), is quite simply a magnificent beast in the film. Amleth, given reason to reclaim his humanity through his love for Olga, becomes more complex and nuanced than the man who lives only through violence and hatred. Although Skarsgård’s performance is predominantly physical, there is space for him to portray the character’s grief, betrayal, confusion, and vulnerability.
Nicole Kidman as Gudrún is given one of the most effective scenes in the film. Gudrún’s steel is unexpected, and Kidman, once again, proves that even with a supporting role, she is built to surprise and impress. Sadly, Anya Taylor-Joy isn’t given as much meat as one would hope for the ostensible lead actress. Her accent, unplaceable and confusing, often lifts the audience out of the diegetic world. Perhaps it is because Olga is essentially an adjunct to Amleth and a means for him to question his quest and devotion to violence that she seems somewhat underwritten. Taylor-Joy has proven many times in her relatively short career (essentially kickstarted by Eggers in The Witch) that she is a profoundly compelling presence. Whilst she is on screen, it is difficult to look away from her, but as one contemplates Olga, the less the character seems to exist for anything but another rite-of-passage for Amleth.
As a bloody and most certainly trippy revenge tale, The Northman is astounding in many places. Eggers may not have created the ultimate Viking tale, but he has crafted an astonishing spectacle that combines his established style with something larger. The film is indeed epic in scope and scale. However, it feels its most authentic when it is obviously Eggers. The myth and magic at the heart of the tale are more interesting than the revenge narrative. Eggers also seems somewhat forgiving of the brutality of Viking culture. Amleth is our hero, and because of what befell him, his violence seems justified. Eggers does end on a nihilistic note that then transforms into a reward for Amleth’s bloody vengeance. To an extent, Eggers’ films are open to many interpretations, and The Northman is no exception. However, as a visual experience, it is marvelous even if it isn’t as thematically rich as his previous works. Strap in for a wild and violent ride and let Eggers engulf your senses.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney