Directed By: Robert Eggers
Written By: Robert Eggers and Sjón
Runtime: 136 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity
Alexander Skarsgård – Amleth
Nicole Kidman – Queen Gudrún
Ethan Hawke – King Aurvandil War-Raven
Claes Bang – Fjölnir
Anya Taylor-Joy – Olga of the Birch Forest
Willem Dafoe – Heimir the Fool
Gustav Lindh – Thórir
Elliott Rose – Gunnar
Eldar Skar – Finnr
Oscar Novak – Young Amleth
Björk – Seeress
In the brutal, bloody epic, The Northman, director Robert Eggers presents a pure, unfettered Viking tale. After starting small for his directorial debut with the low-budget, period horror feature, The WitchEggers’ next film was the acclaimed psychological thriller, The Lighthousewhich had a somewhat higher budget. The Northman is a big change for Eggers. It’s his highest-budgeted feature to date, as well as a splendid natural progression based on his previous work.
The Northman is a primal, brutal vision of a young man’s quest for vengeance, but that quest was not as noble and righteous as he initially envisioned. Robert Eggers and Sjón’s screenplay is inspired by the same Scandinavian legend that William Shakespeare later adapted for his play, Hamlet. In this version, young Norse prince Amleth (Novak) sees his father, King Aurvandil (Hawke), murdered by Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang). Amleth manages to escape execution and sees her mother, Queen Gudrún (Kidman), seemingly taken captive before he flees.
Some years later, a now-adult Amleth (Skarsgård) works as a battle-hardened Viking soldier, raiding and pillaging villages for slaves and resources. After the Vikings’ latest raid, Amleth encounters a mysterious, eerie Seeress (Björk), who bids him on a quest to find his vengeance against Fjölnir. Amleth then disguises himself within the group of slaves sent to what remains of Fjölnir’s kingdom in Iceland. In Fjölnir’s Icelandic village, he finds that his mother, Gudrún, is still alive and sired a son with Fjölnir. Amleth was driven by his hatred for Fjölnir for years, but all is not as it seems.
While Amleth secretly enacts his plans for revenge in Fjölnir’s village, he receives help from another slave, the would-be sorceress Olga. They form an unlikely bond and romance, as Olga assists him, seeing an opportunity for freedom. Amleth has “the strength to break men’s bones,” while Olga has “the cunning to break men’s minds.” Their romance provides a welcome emotional core to the story and offers a nice respite from the grisly depictions of violence and cruelty.
The Northman is engrossing, and Eggers presents a purely immersive vision of 9th Century Norse culture. Eggers does not shy away from the cruelty and brutality of the period. This raises the film’s level of authenticity, especially since major Hollywood movies about Vikings and Vikings culture are exceedingly rare.
Yet even with the film’s heavy layers of authenticity, there is a nice mystical, supernatural edge to the story. Eggers frames the film with a fable-like style. It’s as if this is a version of the legend being told by people around the campfires in times of yore.
Eggers treats the supernatural elements of the story interestingly as if they are visions or tricks of the mind’s eye. Of course, there are instances of characters imbibing mind-altering substances, so it would make sense that characters sometimes see or imagine things that may not truly be there. However, the mystical visions still look authentic and powerful.
The Northman is lensed by Jarin Blaschke, who shot Eggers’ last two features. Their collaboration is exquisite. Scenes are lit beautifully, naturally, yet not hard to discern. The frequent battle and fight scenes pull back and display the action in its full brutality. It is nice to see battle sequences that are not cut and edited to hell and back, where the actions in the frame are allowed to tell the story. Eggers is unflinching in depicting the cruelty of this period.
The cast is excellent, and truly brings out the raw, primal, elemental qualities of the story. Alexander Skarsgård was born to play the role of Amleth. His performance is the best work of his career. Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a thoughtful, introspective nature, and he displays wonderful chemistry with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga. Olga is a difficult role, but Taylor-Joy encompasses the necessities of this character amazingly well. She portrays Olga with believable energy and fierceness.
Claes Bang as Fjölnir is arguably the most tragic figure in this story. Eggers makes Fjölnir more than just a traitorous usurper and conventional villain. The Northman is far more complex than a simple tale of revenge.
Of course, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe also appear in small, yet memorable, roles as King Aurvandil and his court fool, Heimir. The thespians make the most of their screen time and still have a significant impact throughout the narrative.