With a filmography cemented in tense, period-era folklore tales such as The Witch and The Lighthouse, a revenge-tale set in the world of 16th century Vikings doesn’t seem like too far of stretch for filmmaker Robert Eggers. However, while The Northman solidifies Eggers’ unique directing style and ability to authentically portray ancient atmospheres, this action-packed, rage-filled story of vengeance serves as his most accessible and mainstream movie to date.
His story starting out as a young boy, Amleth is a prince and beloved son to King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). Amleth’s battle-hardened father has an equal amount of care and love for war, as he does his son, the son who will one day ascend to the honour of being King. Not aligning with his brother’s wishes for Amleth to one day rule, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), ambushes Amleth and the King when they are secluded in the woods, ultimately leading to Fjolnir killing his brother and sending his man to find and kill his fleeing nephew. Narrowly escaping his village by boat, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) disappears for many years before returning to his home as a savage, rage-filled warrior whose single train of thought creates the foundation of his soul purpose – avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.
On a visual level, director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who worked with Eggers’ on both of his previous films) have created a truly atmospheric film that captures elements of both grounded, gritty realism and heightened, mythological and spiritual imagery. The grey-skied villages of an ancient European land somehow standout as vivid with Eggers’ direction, often capturing incredibly scenic landscapes of mountains, fields, and a volcano on the edge of eruption in beautiful wide shots. These wide shots also play an integral role in Eggers’ decision to shoot many scenes of The Northman in long, one take shots. Elongated conversations and monologues are captured with the main characters in the forefront and the Nordic scenery as a secondary character in the background.
Eggers boldly uses long, uncut takes for many of the action set-pieces in the film too, more often than not, creating these stunning and incredibly tense portions of brutal violence that feels very akin to the stylings of the Viking culture. Early on into adult Amleth’s journey, a truly awesome one-shot take involving Amleth’s wolf-warrior tribe raiding and pillaging a small village serves as an exciting feat in filmmaking, but also a confronting introduction to the violent capabilities of Amleth while he is on his quest for vengeance.
Alexander Skarsgard’s commitment to the rage and intensity of Amleth, both physically and emotionally (with many moments of those two elements combining), sees the actor shine in the role that seems to have finally let Skarsgard show off his most primal and engaging performance yet. Proving himself as a versatile actor in previous roles, The Northman captures Skarsgard’s best work on screen as a truly pained soul, hell bent on forcing that pain on the person who took everything away from him. Physical aesthetics aside (even though Skarsgard is insanely muscular as Amleth), it’s the scenes of Amleth yelling, screaming, even howling alongside his fellow warriors around a fire that displays an unabashed primality that other actors may have ruined by not fully committing to the savagery, or simply may not have been able to physically pull it off. Skarsgard undoubtedly and convincingly pulls it off. Even in his quieter more nuanced moments that focus on a blossoming romance with a slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), the immense pain that Amleth carries is still portrayed withing the eyes and mannerisms of Skarsgard’s performance.
Eggers also shows a seamless ability to integrate the grounded realism with a vivid and engaging representation of the spirituality behind the Viking culture. Whether it’s eerie premonitions from witches and oracles, or hallucinogenic visions, or souls being flown to Valhalla by the Valkyries, Eggers displays on screen with confidence the fact that Vikings truly believed in what the modern day would now see as myth. Amleth often calls out to the Viking gods for guidance on his quest and seeing a visual interpretation of a spiritual moment happening in the physical world adds a fantastic, bold aesthetic to the film overall. It’s during these moments that the substance and depth to both stories and characters feels enhanced, which in turn creates an intriguing narrative that feels authentic to the period it’s portraying and adds a sense of originality and distinction from what could very well have been a basic, by-the-numbers revenge tale.
The spirituality of the story plays heavily into the relationship between Amleth and Olga, who both bond over their desires to be freed from the emotional turmoil they’re in, but both also share a connection to the gods they pray too, given them ‘supernatural’ (for lack of a better term) abilities that help them on their quest. Taylor-Joy gives a performance on the level expected from her at this point in her career. Her understanding of Olga and the role she plays in Amleth’s life is brought to the screen with a feminine ferocity that Amleth identifies quickly as being an asset to his revenge plan, but also opens up the romantic connection for the characters which serves as decent sub-plot that is worth investing in, but never detracts from the overarching dark tone of The Northman.
Clocking in at almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Northman is a very well-paced and tightly edited film. Considering Eggers use of long takes, no scene in the film feels unnecessary, over-bearing or over-long. While there are exhausting moments of highly tense drama or brutal violence, it plays into the story’s atmosphere as a necessity.
While fans of Eggers’ previous films may initially be deterred by the fact that The Northman is his most ‘mainstream’ work to date, this rage-filled Viking revenge tale successfully mixes his consistently evolving and unique style of filmmaking with grandiose action that is on a level of ‘blockbuster’ entertainment. An authentic portrayal, in both tone and dialogue, of the Viking-era, this gritty and grounded, yet spiritually enlightened tale is intriguing, exciting and tense, led by a performance from Alexander Skarsgard that will be recognised as some of his best work to date.
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