The Northman is director Robert Eggers third feature length film after The Witch and The Lighthouse. The film is written by Eggers and Sjón, who also co-wrote Lamb and is a frequent collaborator with Björk. The Northman is described as an epic historical action drama, but is essentially a Viking revenge film.
Taking place in AD 895, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is killed by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Aurvandill’s son, Amleth (Oscar Novak portrays young Amleth) flees and swears revenge on his uncle while vowing to save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
In AD 914, a now adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has been raised as a Viking and was enlisted as a berserker. Seemingly losing his focus in furious battle, Amleth is reminded of his vengeful mission a few years later by a Seeress (Björk) that predicts that Amleth will soon get his sought after revenge on his uncle.
The film is based on the story of Amleth, which was written sometime before the year 1200 and inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Northman feels like it’s forged by the same cinematic swordsmith that created the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Beowulf, and Gladiator, but with a bloodier, and slightly trippier ambiance Robert Eggers tends to be known for.
Amleth’s opening voiceover as the film opens with a monstrously intimidating volcano on the verge of erupting is haunting. Alexander Skarsgård has this gruff and nearly grunt-like growl to his speech that you can feel reverberate in your chest as he speaks.
The score to the film is also just as memorable and incredible. On paper, it’s just a series of loud drumming or pounding, a fancy string arrangement, and some harmless chanting. But all of those elements together suddenly become this impressive musical declaration of war. The score constantly crescendos and always finds a way to ignite a fire within you.
It’s humorous to think that most will have seen Willem Dafoe last in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Dafoe’s role as Heimir the Fool is also a leap in a different direction even when compared to his role as Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse.
Heimir’s key role in the story is to oversee the spiritual journey Almeth takes with Aurvandill right before his death. It’s a bizarre sequence as both grown men and the young boy are dressed in nothing but loin cloths as they act like dogs, get on their hands and knees, drink water from a bowl, belch, and take turns sniffing each other’s farts.
It’s an intriguing role for Dafoe as he’s this crowd pleasing jester one minute and a spiritual guide the next.
The barbaric action is fairly straightforward in The Northman, but what complicates things are Amleth’s visions. Beginning with his encounter with the Seeress, Amleth also battles an undead spirit for the Night Blade, has a vision of a Valkyrie taking him to Valhalla, and sees his unborn children in rare glimpses of the future.
These surreal sequences have a palpable dream-like quality to them. It makes you wonder if they’re actually occurring or are only in Amleth’s head.
Nicole Kidman is exceptional as Queen Gudrún. The character is written in a way that makes her seem like a damsel in distress, but she’s much more evil and manipulative.
At first, she seems like the typical Queen character that is pushed aside in order to give the spotlight to the king. But once Gudrún comes face to face with an adult Amleth, she strikes like a snake with venomous words that pierce Amleth deeper than any weapon actually could.
Kidman shines in the role as well as you seem to love the fact that a mother could be so cruel to one of her children.
Spoiling a film is no fun, but since The Northman is kind of bombing at the box office right now ($23.5 million opening weekend on a $70-$90 million budget) this is worth mentioning.
The finale of the film takes place at the volcano Hekla, which resides at the Gates of Hel. Lava is spilling out everywhere as smoke fills the air and two grown men sword duel to the death.
That’s right, the ending of The Northman has two naked men sword fighting at the base of an erupting volcano. It’s freaking nuts.
The Northman is a bloody and ferocious battle cry of a revenge film. The action is brutal and the performances are extraordinary. This is Robert Eggers at his most savage and masterful.
- The bloody action.
- The rhythmic, pounding score.
- Amleth’s visions and strange encounters.
- May be too weird or too slow for some.
- Won’t change your opinion of Robert Eggers if you already dislike him as a filmmaker.
- ...Did you say fart sniffing?