Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Sjón and Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe
It’s been three years since Robert Eggers last film, the strange and disturbing The Lighthouse. This time around he’s back with a more traditional revenge story, with a Viking setting and a stellar cast. The film is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which also inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, who as a young boy saw his father killed by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He escaped with one motivation, to avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. Years pass and Amleth grows up to be a strong warrior, still searching for his revenge. Upon hearing that Fjölnir has taken his family to Iceland, Amleth passes as a prisoner to be taken as a slave by Fjölnir, to seek his revenge.
If you’ve seen either of Robert Egger’s previous films, then you’re probably expecting this one to be similar in a similar art house style. While it has a bigger budget, and studio backing, The Northman is still a Robert Eggers film. It’s not quite as strange or inaccessible as The Lighthouse, but there’s still some uncanny and bizarre moments, especially when Willem Dafoe is on screen. There’s a few dreamlike visions and folklore elements to the story that makes this feel unique. The film is at its best when there’s nothing holding it back. The head of a dead he-witch telling Amleth his fate, an underground fight that seems to happen in Amleth’s mind, the appearance of mythical Valkyries. It’s when the film gets weird that it’s at its best.
The story is simple, but still has some room for surprises along the way, with an effective twist late into the story. Also, while travelling to Iceland Amleth meets a sorceress, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who helps him in his search for revenge. Olga becomes intertwined with Amleth’s fate and he must make a decision between her and his hatred, a prophecy that is put forward earlier in the film. There’s a really interesting relationship between Amleth and his half-brothers. They don’t know who he is, but he’s protective and almost envious of them. They are living the life that was stolen from him.
There’s a lot of darkness in the world of The Northman. This is a story where Amleth’s father is brutally murdered in front of him, by his uncle. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Vikings in anyway. There’s a raid early on, where no one is safe. The fighting is visceral and incredibly brutal, to the point that there’s a few moments that are a little stomach churning. There’s an earthly and grounded quality to everything that makes the violence feel so real, even when there’s moments around the fighting that feel straight out of a fantasy story.
Everyone in the cast is on top form here, bringing a fantastical story to life and making it feel very gritty and real. Alexander Skarsgård is fantastic, as he usually is. Nicole Kidman is exceptional, playing a strange character who changes a lot throughout the film. She’s not in it a lot but leaves an impression. Anya Taylor-Joy is outstanding every time she’s on screen. Claes Bang is completely intimidating and yet also has a vulnerable side when it comes to his children.
Visually the film is a masterpiece, with cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, who previously worked with Eggers on both The Witch and The Lighthouse. The scenery is gorgeous to look at, and the fighting looks incredible. The last fight scene is fantastically shot, and without spoiling anything, is one of the most striking sequences in recent memory. Likewise, the score to this film is imposing and loud, creating a dark and foreboding atmosphere.
Robert Eggers is one of the most interesting film makers of recent years. All three of his films, so far, have been completely different and absolutely gripping. The Northman works on every level and is a pure spectacle to watch. It may not dive headfirst into the deep end of strange like The Lighthouse, but even being a more standard story it’s still mesmerising to watch.
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