'The Northman' Provides a Hearty Dose of Lore and Gore
If Robert Eggers has cemented anything with The Northman, it's his passion for folklore. He took on the mythology of witchcraft in a 15th century New England backdrop with The Witch (2015), sea creatures in the 1890s with The Lighthouse (2019), and now Viking mythos in 800s Northern Europe in The Northman. Co-written with first-time collaborator Icelandic poet Sjón, The Northman is chock-full of Viking folklore, ferocious performances, and engaging cinematography that acts as its own character in the story.
A tale of revenge, The Northman follows Amleth (Alexander Skarasgård), who, as a child, witnesses his uncle kill his father, King Aurvandill. He flees the kingdom, vowing to avenge his father. Once grown, he allows himself to become enslaved by his uncle and mother (Nicole Kidman) in order to enact his plan, getting help from a sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy) along the way.
Shakespeare's Hamlet is actually a spin on the tale of The Northman; the names Hamlet and Amleth are virtually the same. The storylines have some things in common, from the uncle killing Amleth’s father to said uncle marrying his mother. The Northman, however, is far more barbaric than its 17th-century successor, with its gruesome violence and whimsical fantasy elements taking the place of Shakespeare’s signature monologuing prose.
Amleth is a character that enters a room and immediately becomes the elephant. Skarsgard has proven himself a competent leading man in the past and The Northman is no different. Ruthless and wielding seemingly unlimited blunt power, every kill he makes and every stare he delivers startles and chills.
Skarsgård's sheer size also adds a layer of intimidation. Standing at 6'4", he towers over his counterparts physically and psychologically as he gains respect among the captives. Amleth often repeats the line "I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, and I will kill you Fjölnir," growing in ferocity over the course of the film, fueled by each interaction with the reprehensible Fjölnir.
The supporting cast is equally incredible, from Ethan Hawke's honorable Aurvandill to Willem Dafoe's fitting Heimir. Both have limited screen time, but they nail their Nordic accents and, specifically, a scene during which young Amleth and their characters endure a drug-infused trip and prance around on all fours.
Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy are both excellent, with Taylor-Joy continuing to prove why she's a hot commodity in Hollywood with her graceful line delivery and commanding presence. On the other hand, Kidman could've been just as outstanding as Skarsgård if her character was fleshed out to a greater dimension than “mother of Amleth.”
On a technical level, The Northman showcases stunning cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, who is hot off of an Oscar nomination for 2019’s The Lighthouse. He captures various shots of the gorgeous Nordic landscape containing gigantic volcanoes, mountainous plains, and grim forests in a way that makes a character of itself within the movie. Blaschke also adds a fieriness to the film’s use of colors in certain moments from dream sequences Amleth to action pieces.
Even when the palette transitions from bleak colors to earthly greens, Blaschke's camerawork is an amazing feast for the eyes not just with the composition, but also in the camerawork. There, Blaschke showcases long tracking shots that range from Amleth and his men overthrowing a village to Valkyrie taking Amleth to the gates of Valhalla in a dream sequence. I can only hope that Blaschke will get more love and recognition for his work.
The action sequences are as fun to watch as they are beautiful, with sharp choreography. Every hit and blow struck packs a punch, especially when it’s from Amleth. When the final climactic fight sequence between Amleth and Fjölnir comes around, Amleth fights with every single ounce he has even if the hits he gets do collateral damage to him. Eggers’ superb direction informs Skarsgård's physical performance while acting out scenes like the finale.
Accompanying the chaos of these action sequences is Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s musical score. Carolan and Gainsborough elevate each and every fight scene with heavy Nordic chants and drums. Like the fight choreography, the score puts an emphasis on the relentless violence.
I will note that The Northman is a lot more approachable than The Witch and The Lighthouse. Whether it’s because the film was distributed by a bigger studio (Focus Features and Universal) than what the latter two had (A24), or because the storyline is more straightforward, I feel like The Northman will be more enjoyable for a wider audience. The Witch and The Lighthouse are more targeted to an auteur audience and contain even more bizarre moments than what audiences may see in Eggers’ latest.
The Northman is a bloody good time and continues to prove how impressive Robert Eggers’ unparalleled auteur vision really is. It is easily one of the year's best, and I highly encourage seeing it on the big screen.