Through his first two films – The Witch and the criminally underrated The Lighthouse – Robert Eggers has already proven himself to be an absolute master at setting mood, atmosphere, and tone. His careful eye for production design, combined with his uncanny ability to draw out the most intense performances possible from his actors, has made him an elite filmmaker in a very short space of time.
His trademark skills are on display once more with his third feature, The Northman, which is also his most commercial outing to date. While the film certainly has some easy points to criticize, the overall presentation is nonetheless remarkable, overcoming some elements that in lesser hands would come off clunky, if not problematic.
Based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which also provided the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the story is a basic parable of love, vengeance, and the idea that we as humans control our own “fate” through our choices and actions. It’s a tale that’s literally been told for a millennium, but as all well-worn plots go, the execution matters just as much as the substance, perhaps even more so.
Set in Norway and Iceland (though filmed largely in Ireland, showing off the majestic beauty of the island through gorgeous cinematography), the movie centers around Amleth (Oscar Novak as a child, Alexander Skarsgård as an adult), a young prince devoted to his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). When the king is betrayed and murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang from 2017 Palme d’Or winner, The Square), and the queen (Nicole Kidman) kidnapped, Amleth flees his homeland to escape death, vowing vengeance.
As an adult, Amleth, under an alias, fights with a band of Viking barbarians, ransacking villages and murdering indiscriminately. For Amleth, this feeds his bloodlust and tempers him for the prophesied time when he will face Fjölnir again. He gets his chance upon learning that Fjölnir fled Norway for Iceland, where he runs a small farm village after himself being deposed. Amleth stows away as a slave, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), an earth witch with whom he falls in love. As he plots his revenge, Amleth receives visions from seers and soothsayers (played in turn by Willem Dafoe, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, and Björk), leading him to a magical sword that will slay his uncle, but which can only be wielded at night.
Now, because Robert Eggers is such a great filmmaker, a lot of early misfires can be forgiven, knowing the quality that he’ll infuse as the movie goes on. Some of the violence, while expertly choreographed, borders on gratuitous at times. There’s far too much dialogue, particularly from Skarsgård and Bang, that is little more than screams and grunts, which would be a fine display of the deluge of testosterone going on were it not also for the fact that Skarsgård himself presents a uniquely intimidating figure as he literally hulks around hacking off heads and limbs. And as much as I enjoy the historical fantasy genre, the first 20 minutes of the movie couldn’t be more Game of Thrones if you Winterfelled me in my King’s Landing. Seriously, even the score plays like a parody of the opening theme mixed with “The Rains of Castermere.”
But in the midst of these moments that would be almost laughable in less capable hands, Eggers finds the ways to make them essential. Just like in The Lighthouse, he’s able to find surprising nuance in the primal grunts and howls of his characters – including Willem Dafoe for the second straight film – that offers more depth and development to them than any superficial talk of honor and battle could ever do. The sometimes scattershot editing juxtaposes and complements several long-take tracking shots that allows the audience to feel the chaotic maelstrom swirling in Amleth’s head as he juggles logic and rage, in addition to establishing some great non-verbal exposition (a technique that Ari Aster uses quite well; Eggers thanks him in the credits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he helped storyboard some of the scenes).
And most importantly, Eggers continues to hammer home the intensity of the moment through the passionate displays from his cast. The biggest example of this, to my great surprise, comes from Nicole Kidman. I’m far from her biggest fan, and I make a habit to quietly boo from my seat every time AMC delays the movie even further by showing her ad after the trailers. I’ve enjoyed a good deal of her work over the years, but for the most part I find her overrated, with her on-and-off Aussie accent being more of an affectation than anything else. However, she absolutely blew me away here. She employs a light, almost hissing voice throughout the film with a very convincing Scandinavian accent to go with it, constantly keeping the viewer guessing as to her true motivations, even when she outwardly divulges them. It’s a vocal approach that always hints at something deeper that could either be sinister or pure depending on the scene. On top of that, the evolution of her character, along with her ability to change the tone of her performance on a dime was something truly impressive. Massive credit where it’s due here.
Honestly, despite all the masculinity on display, the real grace notes in the cast come from the female characters. Kidman gives a spectacular performance, as does Taylor-Joy. As Olga, she provides a grounded soul and conscience to the bloody proceedings, even while actively participating in them. As she notes, Amleth has “the strength to break men’s bones; I have the cunning to break their minds,” and she uses that intellect quite well. Even Björk’s one scene is compelling, as her blind seer character speaks intriguing words while presenting a haunting countenance.
That’s not to say that the geysers of testosterone in the picture don’t have their moments as well. The sight of Amleth catching a spear in mid-air and hurling it right back into a soldiers chest from 100 yards away is badass in the extreme. A scene of sport that begins somewhat lightly devolves quickly into true life or death stakes, and the crescendo of action with dwindling numbers is simply stunning. Hell, the film even shows off some brass balls by calling out Christians, saying “Their god is a corpse nailed to a tree” when it’s suggested that maybe there are some nearby practicing a magic that would outdo the Norse gods. That’s the kind of line that would probably get the film banned in some countries, and even certain states domestically if their governors had their way.
It all plays into this wonderful atmosphere that Eggers is able to maintain throughout, of a powerful storm coming in the form of Amleth, a symphony of blood and fire waiting for the conductor to set it loose, tragically tinged with the knowledge that there’s an out. As much as the film and the characters like to discuss the bounds of fate and prophecy, everything ultimately comes down to their choices, an even subtler way to indict religion than the boisterous dialogue referenced above. It’s rather profound to acknowledge that in such an ancient tale filled with shallow violence, there’s always an escape clause, so long as those involved have the wisdom to see it. Love can win out and tragedy can be avoided if people listen to reason and make choices based in reality rather than mysticism or a misplaced sense of obligation.
Sure the story is predictable, the viscera is over the top at times, and the film teases Anya Taylor-Joy nudity without ever really paying it off (yes, I’m a perv, you knew this), but those flaws, while notable, don’t derail the overall epic. The Northman delivers exactly what it promises, and does so with the highest level of production value and commitment to giving the audience a memorable experience. And at the same time that it bombards you with wonderfully rendered ultraviolence on the surface, it also challenges you to take inventory on what really matters in life and what constitutes true strength. In that sense, the film overtly glorifies toxic masculinity while covertly damning it. For that, it is worthy of a place of honor.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Is there anything truly worth killing or dying for? Do you like movies about gladiators? Let me know!