First there was The Witch back in 2015 and then there was The Lighthouse in 2019. Two Robert Eggers movies that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre with hallucinatory execution, menacing atmosphere and arthouse flair paving the way for what many cinephiles refer to as ‘elevated horror’. Now, three years on from The Lighthouse, Eggers returns with what many critics are dubbing an ‘action-filled fantasy epic’. With a bigger budget and a stronger emphasis on wider release and mainstream exposure, would The Northman push the boundaries of epic historical drama in the same way The Witch and The Lighthouse pushed horror to its creepiest depths for the exhilarating better? The answer is a confident yes.
The Northman follows Amleth (based upon the Scandinavian legend which inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet) a young prince and heir to King Aurvandil War-Raven’s throne in the freezing north of Scandinavia. When Amleth witnesses his father and king’s betrayal at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir, the young prince is destined to flee his mother and his home for survival vowing mantra-like vengeance. Years later and Amleth has become a monstrous ‘Berserker’ in the ‘land of the Rus’ and upon a chance meeting with a creepy Seeress, Amleth recalls his divine mantra once again with every intent of fulfilling his promised vows to his father; “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
The Northman is as simplistic as revenge movies get from a substance perspective. A young child grows into a man filled with rage and meets a few characters along the way that help proceedings fall into place before finally coming face to face with past demons in a torrent of bloodshed. Simple stuff but very early on it becomes crystal clear that Eggers’ unique artistic flair which permeated his previous features is the true driving force here in an attempt to provide an enthralling cinematic experience. And one thing is certain, The Northman is definitely an enthralling cinematic experience.
Hallucinatory congregations, ritualistic war cries and fantastical illusions of the afterlife are commonplace in Eggers’ newest tale to evoke a sense of unease and bewilderment for the audience, and it really helps raise The Northman above standard fantasy fare. The story beats are predictable all too often, but the execution and flair are what makes The Northman so goddamn unique and infectious. Just when you think things are settling down and we are firmly rooting our feet back into some sense of reality, Eggers brings you face to face with death (literally) in the most unexpected of ways. It may not always work, but the visual gambles Eggers takes with the simple material is breathtaking at times. It is impressive to see a mainstream effort embrace the morbid and unusual with such a strong backing from the distributing production company pushing it out to the masses for hopeful consumption.
The cast also embrace Eggers’ vision wholeheartedly. Alexander Skarsgård gives a career best performance as Amleth, a role that Skarsgård seemed destined to play. Skarsgård is a hulking brute of a man who genuinely looks like he could crush any human or beast with his bare hands without much struggle – the very definition of a true ‘Berserker’. The early raid scene on a small village and the climactic finale really drives home Skarsgård’s unflinching brutality and his relentless devotion to bringing Eggers’ vision of Amleth to life. It is an absolute joy to behold, and the utmost respect must be paid to Skarsgård for his dedication behind the scenes as much as his performance on screen.
The rest of the cast are in superb form also. Ethan Hawke’s role is minimal as King Aurvandil War-Raven, but his performance is as solid as ever. Nicole Kidman shines as Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún, with tension filled moments that showcase why Kidman is such a sought-after performer by many acclaimed directors these days. Claes Bang is a surprisingly compelling villain that hides more under the surface than originally thought and Bang’s performance is full of emotion at all the appropriate opportunities. Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga and Amleth’s subsequent love interest is also great although the same can’t be said for her extremely dodgy accent at times.
Smaller appearances come from the likes of Willem Dafoe as jestering Heimir The Fool, Björk as the creepy Seeress mentioned earlier, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as the scene-stealing He-Witch and even Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, fondly remembered as The Mountain in Game Of Thrones, makes a great little appearance in one of The Northman’s more violent scenes. The truth is the cast are a direct reflection of Eggers’ ability behind the camera lens. They complement each other phenomenally and, much like The Lighthouse, add to the overall mysticism and trance like atmosphere of its simplistic but satisfying story beats.
The highest level of praise I can offer Eggers’ flick goes to the original score by both Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough. The score is truly phenomenal and brings everything to roaring life. When you need proceedings to get heart beats racing, both Carolan and Gainsborough have the answers. When you need heartfelt moments to take hold and slow things down for emotional effect, both Carolan and Gainsborough have the answers. Every ritualistic thud, percussive clang and thunderous drone has immense weight that tests the sound system to the fullest. It really is a near perfect soundtrack that begs for award acknowledgment when the opportunity arises.
Where The Northman does suffer however is with its pacing and the misrepresentation of its sum of parts at times. The first and final third are fast paced and relentless at times leading to exhilarating set pieces and interesting outcomes but the overly long middle act suffers hugely from those dreaded pacing issues. The middle is not without its fair share of addictive encounters that excite and thrill but much of the runtime is spent lingering a little too long on unnecessary character choices which all, ultimately, feels like unnecessary build up by the end. Just when you think things are going to ramp up, The Northman tends to double down and slow procedures to a near halt at times. Thirty to forty minutes could have easily been cut to allow for a smoother, faster paced revenge flick and it is hard to fathom why the overall runtime is approaching two and a half hours.
I have no doubt in my mind that many viewers will be unhappy with how The Northman has been portrayed prior to release too. Promoted in its trailers as an action filled epic, The Northman is more calculated with its action choosing to use it sparingly and more precisely as opposed to all out carnage at any given opportunity. It doesn’t mean that Eggers’ feature isn’t an epic because it is, but the action is less of an emphasis and the character and world building takes clear priority here.
Given the location setting at the middle point, The Northman feels more in common with Valhalla Rising’s (2009) calculated use of violence and ‘action’ as opposed to the roaring theatrics of something like Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator (2000). It’s something that didn’t bother me personally, but it needs to be said nonetheless and it isn’t hard for many to enter expecting a different kind of action experience. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t even categorize The Northman as an action movie, it is simply a fantasy epic with moments of brutality scattered throughout.
Robert Eggers’ The Northman is a superb epic drama. It does have its fair share of faults, particularly its slow pace once the middle mark hits, but if you want a simplistic revenge story that revels in visual absurdity and phenomenal world building then it will be harder to find a better Viking set epic anywhere. The Northman may also be one of the most authentic interpretations of Scandinavian legend in quite some time with stellar performances and faithful mythological nods capturing those Norse feels. A must see for Viking obsessives and lovers of Robert Eggers unusual filmmaking stylings.
The Northman is currently playing in Irish cinemas.