The Northman

The Northman

2022, R, 136 min. Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Gustav Lindh, Björk, Oscar Novak, Willem Dafoe.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 22, 2022

The greatest achievement possible for a historical drama is to truly immerse the audience in a time and place. Not just to re-create set dressing and dialect but to inform every moment with the culture, the world view, the feeling of that setting. By that measurement, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is an extraordinary feat of cinema – but it’s also a bloody, mournful, violent tale of vengeance that is never simply academic, but visceral, sensual, emotional, and epic.

It’s also not about Vikings. After all, that is a term that was applied by outsiders to the peoples of Northern Europe, a name that translates roughly to “pirate.” Instead, Eggers looks from within, and there is arguably no filmmaker better suited to the task. In both The Witch and The Lighthouse, he absorbed a vast amount of research on two particular locales and eras (the early Colonial American Eastern Seaboard and the isolation of 19th-century lighthouse keepers, respectively) and used it all to quietly color every moment. The Northman works on a vast canvas – or rather, map. The time is the decades around the turn of the 10th century, but there is not one place, rather a swath of Northern Europe from the Orkneys to the bleak and recently settled hinterlands of Iceland, to the farmlands of the Rus on the western steppe. There’s no monoculture here, but vying kingdoms, warbands, faiths, mythologies, and interests.

It’s in the furthest Scottish isles in which The Northman begins, at the court of the returning King Aurvandil (Hawke), a raider back from the sea with plunder and slaves, back to Queen Gudrún (Kidman), the mother of his son and heir, Amleth (Novak). But any happiness is soon devastated by blades loyal to the king’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang), who usurps the throne and sends his nephew fleeing for his life. The man who returns years later is not the scared little boy but a giant of a man (Skarsgård), a battle-hardened berserker who has constantly chanted the same pledge in his exile: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

If the story and the name resonate with familiarity, it’s because the story of Amleth is a Viking tale of unclear origins, later versions of which were the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Scripting alongside author and longtime Björk collaborator Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (writing here under the nom de plume Sjón) to fulfill a longtime ambition of Skarsgård to recreate the era, Eggers weaves together the strands of mythology and history that are what we know. He conjures up the sensation of what it was to live in the cold mire of the firm belief that the Norns had your fate ordained, and that one of the slaves with whom Amleth hides himself (Eggers regular Taylor-Joy) can channel Slavic earth magic. It’s a past place where shamans can speak to the dead and warriors can channel atavistic spirits. Magic is in the gut and the soil, as real as iron and wood and bone. Violence is a constant interrupter, even though Eggers more often shows the disturbing result than its execution.

It’s the perfect tone at which to pitch The Northman, because our understanding of exactly what the time of the Vikings (curse that word) was like is imprecise. The film is subjective, an onscreen exercise in reconstructive archaeology rich with the kind of subtext that flows deep in Eggers’ work (such as the struggle between the honor-driven Odin cultists and the fertility rites of Freyja). Yet it’s never dry, figuratively or literally. Amleth cuts a bloody path through the Norse realms, his gore-soaked hands keeping an ever-lessening grasp on the slippery concept of revenge. Like Hamlet, he is faced with choices as to whether to continue or not, but there is more than an enraged shade of his father forcing his inevitable steps toward a spectacular showdown on the ashen slopes of a volcano. The Northman lives and breathes like the old epics; not Old Hollywood’s cartoonish depictions of warriors with horned helmets, but the ancient tales to which he pays deep respect.

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More Robert Eggers Films
The Lighthouse
The latest from The Witch director finds madness in isolation

Matthew Monagle, Oct. 25, 2019

The Witch
Madness, mayhem, and witchcraft beset a family in 1630s New England

Marc Savlov, Feb. 19, 2016

More by Richard Whittaker
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March 31, 2023


The Northman, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Gustav Lindh, Björk, Oscar Novak, Willem Dafoe

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