Movie Review: ‘The Northman’

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafie, Gustav Lindh, Björk

Plot: At the end of the first century, King Aurvandill is murdered by his brother Fjölnir who takes his kingdom. Year later, Aurvandill’s son Amleth returns to avenge his father and rescue his mother.

Review: Robert Eggers is a relatively new film-maker, with this being his third feature, but so far he has a perfect track record of unique and unnerving films. The Northman could be his most accessible film to date, being a historical epic with a straight forward story of revenge. It still has surreal imagery and artistic representations of Norse mythology, but we have a clearer idea of what’s going on. This might be a fun outing for disillusioned Game of Thrones fans who miss the blood-soaked, naked epic fantasy funtimes.

We open with King Aurvandil (Hawke) returning from a pillaging expedition wounded, and preparing his young son Amleth to take on his responsibilities through psychedelic ritual. The king’s brother Fjölnir instead ambushes them and murders Aurvandil while Amleth escapes to the ocean. Years later, Amleth (Skarsgård) has been taken in by a travelling band of Vikings who have raised him to become a berserker. As part of their clan, Amleth takes part in the raiding, pillaging and slaughter of villages to capture slaves to sell. When Amleth learns that a shipment of slaves is being delivered to Fjölnir, now residing in Iceland, he disguises himself as a slave to get his chance at revenge.

During the journey, Amelth finds an ally in Slavic sorceress and fellow slave Olga (Taylor-Joy). Whilst working as slaves, Amleth seeks his opportunity for revenge but feels bound by the words of the fates. Through the guidance of seers and witches, Amleth searches for enchanted sword Dragur and brings violence upon Fjölnir’s followers and family leaving them fearing a dark spirit.

Whilst The Witch and The Lighthouse were restricted to a small setting, The Northman is a sweeping adventure involving the wide vistas of Europe – especially Iceland – showcasing glaciers, rivers, mountains and volcanoes. The villages are, as is standard in an Eggers movie, practical sets built with an eye towards historical accuracy. Combining these settings with the smooth tracking shots and symmetrical framing of characters and we get a damn fine looking movie. In spite of the extreme violence and gore that goes with people hacking at each other with axes and swords, it’s a beautiful looking movie that blends the realistic settings with the mythologies and mysticism that pop up to guide Amleth on his path. The ‘reality’ of these elements aren’t delved into or justified, but presented as is, allowing the audience to accept it as part of the setting.

Along with the scale and budget being substantially higher than his previous films, Eggers has also delivered his longest movie clocking in at close to 2.5 hours. Any movie that can maintain its pacing for the full runtime. With Amleth’s opportunities to get his revenge only to be delayed or belayed in the interest of fulfilling the path of the fates the movie does feel like it has hit a run of speed-bumps. There is a late game turn that forces Amleth to rethink his quest and place in the world, but by that point it feels like we need to move things along.

We’re glad we saw this on a giant screen because it is a visual feast. Everything Eggers has made has been a grotesque delight, and we are here for it.

Rating: NINE out of TEN