Movie Review: ‘The Northman’ (Second Opinion)
Plot: Shortly after King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his island kingdom of Hrafnsey, he participates in a spiritual ceremony with his son Prince Amleth. Meant as a right of passage into manhood and confirmation of Amleth’s inheritance of the throne, King Aurvandill is attacked shortly after the ceremony by masked warriors. The warriors are led by Aurvandill’s bastard half-brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) who proceeds to kill Aurvandill and take his throne. Despite Fjolnir’s followers’ attempts, Amleth is able to escape and vows undying vengeance. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) is subsequently found and raised by a group of Viking berserkers. When an unexpected opportunity presents itself to slake Amleth’s thirst for vengeance, he jumps at the opportunity. With the aid of Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth begins a nightly reign of terror that may bring about the vengeance he so desires…or his own destruction.
Review: I’ve mentioned this before in previous reviews, but personally the mark of a great movie (or at the very least a provocative one) correlates to how much I think about it hours or even days after the credits roll. Robert Eggers’ Earth-shattering tour de force of revenge, The Northman, has been living rent-free in my head for over a week now.
Visceral, brutal, dynamic, complex, and breathtaking in scope, The Northman does for Viking movies what The Ten Commandments did for Bible epics. Eggers has crafted the definitive Viking epic of our time, a benchmark against which all future Viking movies will be judged and probably found wanting. What’s remarkable is that even though this is Eggers’ first foray into big-budget filmmaking, The Northman never manages to sacrifice Eggers’ signature style. While The Northman is definitely Eggers’ most accessible film, it still retains the rapturously haunting quality of his previous efforts The Witch and The Lighthouse. It never feels compromised and Eggers’ attention to detail when it comes to Viking lore, setting, costumes, et al, fully immerses you in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Alexander Skarsgard makes for an entrancing and compelling lead. He’s a true force of nature, a hurricane of anger and violence. An early scene involving a berserker raid on a village fully showcases his menace. Brilliantly shot in one take by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Skarsgard stalks through the village like the Terminator, slaughtering all in his wake. Yet aside from the violent attacks he indulges in, Skarsgard’s Amleth seems removed, almost uncomfortable with the other Viking indulgences such as pillaging and rape. When we meet Amleth as an adult he’s seemingly given up his passionate quest for vengeance and is just kind of existing. In a weird kind of way, this makes him relatable.
It isn’t until a Seeress (Bjork in an excellent small role) foretells he will soon take his long-awaited vengeance. Before long Amleth discovers that Fjolnir lost his kingdom to Harald of Norway and is now living as a chieftain in Iceland. Seizing the opportunity, Amleth poses as a slave and is brought under Fjolnir’s service along with the sorceress Olga.
And then the real madness begins.
The term madness is an excellent word to describe Sjon and Robert Eggers’ script. While ostensibly the film is based on the real Viking legend of Prince Amleth, the screenplay is uniquely Sjon and Eggers’ own concoction. I loved how they embraced the Viking rituals and mysticism. The aforementioned spiritual right of passage is decidedly trippy with Willem Dafoe perfectly cast as a shaman-like leader Heimir, who also serves as Aurvandill’s fool. It dovetails nicely when Heimir – or a least a part of him – shows up later in the film. Eggers and Sjon even throw in a legendary sword called the Night Blade that can only be unsheathed at night or at the mouth of Hell. The scene where Amleth finally attains this blade is one of the coolest, most exciting parts of the movie.
However, what sets Eggers and Sjon’s script apart is how fundamentally complex and rich it actually is. Outwardly, The Northman comes across as a straightforward revenge tale. This is true…up until the moment it very much is not. A third act reveal strikes with the force of Mjolnir and completely re-contextualizes the entire film. The way you fundamentally perceive Amleth and his quest for revenge fundamentally shifts.
The script also does an excellent job of fleshing out the supporting cast. Taylor-Joy Is once again marvelous here. She’s able to convey an intensity of spirit that matches Amleth, while at the same time exuding a sense of warmth. Olga attempts to keep Amleth balanced with varying degrees of success. Olga represents the idea and promise of a life beyond revenge for Amleth. Meanwhile, Claes Bang soars as the treacherous Fjolnir. It would have been easy for Eggers and Sjon to paint him as merely an evil, jealous brother hellbent on glory, but the duo add several layers of complexity to the character that Bang is able to convey brilliantly. He’s an excellent physical specimen to pit against Skarsgard and while he does commit a heinous act of evil, by the end of the film you’re able to see things from his perspective. You may even begin to question who is in the right like I did. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman delivers her best work in probably twenty years. I’ve never been a huge fan of her performances; however, Kidman fully delivers here as Queen Gudrun. There’s a scene with her and Amleth that had my jaw on the floor. Kidman brings a sense of grace and a regal nature coupled with an unexpected passionate intensity to the role. That’s a difficult feat for any actor, but Kidman makes it look easy.
I also can’t overemphasize what a visual feast The Northman is. I mentioned him earlier, but Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is superb. There are multiple shots that are forever seared into my brain. Whether it’s the sweeping vistas of Iceland, the tomb that Amleth procures the Night Blade from, or the final climactic battle between Amleth and Fjolnir, you will not be able to shake these images from your brain. Compound Blaschke’s cinematography with Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s sublime and haunting score and the result is a cinematic marvel forged in fire, iron, and blood.
I say this with no hyperbole, The Northman is the best movie I’ve seen since 2016’s Arrival. It’s a flat-out masterpiece that I will be revisiting until the Valkyries call me home to Valhalla.
My rating system:
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
The Northman: 10/10