Alexia Mihaila reviews Robert Eggers’ long-awaited third feature, a viking revenge saga starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, and Anya Taylor-Joy.
The Northman isn’t Eggers’ first attempt at a story which merges history and fantasy. With acclaim already under his belt for critical and audience darlings The Lighthouse and The Witch, with his latest feature he has managed once again to create a portal to a stripped down past reality where anger, power, and blood dictate the atmosphere. Eggers credits his wife as having inspired him to make the film, having never been particularly interested in telling a Viking story:
“I thought Vikings were violent, hulking brutes with nothing of interest. My wife, on the other hand, had been fond of the Icelandic Sagas […] she knew that I would love them”.
The Northman serves as a powerful, emotionally draining, visually gruesome, and accurate depiction of the Viking lifestyle, all while keeping the audience entertained. That being said, it’s not for the faint-hearted, with plenty of violence, gore, and nudity, portraying an instinctual world driven by men raised as merciless as wild animals, with women mere pawns of slavery or mothers. This is painted through prophetic, visually charged lines in Norse or English — “blood will slither off you like a serpent ” — but also through the film’s visuals. It strikes the balance between the natural glacial stillness of the Icelandic background (shot mostly in Ireland, in fact) and the powerful blood-tinted closeups of Viking fights. The Northman manages to enhance the relatively simple and overdone prophetic narrative of a prince (Amleth, Alexander Skarsgård), thirsty for vengeance after the murder of his father (King Aurvandill War-Raven, Ethan Hawke).
The portrayal of the Viking lifestyle is accurate but inconsistent, the film plunging into mythical magical elements that unfortunately break the fast-paced action rhythm. While I do understand that the story plays off Norse mythology, therefore it’s bound to portray magic naïvety of some sort, the use of CG sorcery doesn’t quite blend in right. Ultimately however, the film is epic. Sorcery comes as a relief from the heavy drama and violence that fills the other eighty percent of the narrative, therefore I can understand the creative choice behind it. Björk is also perhaps the best possible choice of actor to play a sorcerer. The costumes and location choices play a huge part in acclimating the viewer to the nordic drama, and these elements are not glamorised, the film balancing historical accuracy with fiction just enough to keep everyone entertained.
This brings me to what makes The Northman such a great watch, besides the jam-packed brutish action and the visuals: the cast. Alexander Skarsgård truly embodies the hurt and vengeful Viking ready to tear down everything to reclaim his father’s legacy. Kudos to Eggers for making all characters well-rounded, with backstories that bring real soul, especially with the more brutish male players, whose characterisation can often be left behind in a feature like this. Watching, the viewer experiences all the pain and pity of the characters’ struggles, and the film’s universe almost seems to transpose towards our own; I had the real sense that the world I was watching was not so different from the one outside the cinema, just much colder. The Northman challenges the viewer, placing them in a state of mind where its possible to emotionally invest in and root for barbarism because the deeper emotion reveals itself through the physical actions so well.
Eggers’ film is a grandiose tale of vengeance which shines gloriously on the big screen. Even if mythical historical drama films are not your cup of tea, I still believe this to be a definite must-watch this year. It manages to strike all sorts of chords genre-wise, providing small moments of comedy and romance while maintaining its serious and dramatic tone. One will undoubtedly be stunned by the breathtaking visuals, well-produced costumes, and dominant acting credentials (Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke) which, in combination, are bound to appease every watcher.
The Northman is currently out in UK cinemas: