This Viking revenge quest is a real killer, in more ways than one!
I didn’t know that I needed a Viking death metal version of Hamlet, but now that I have it, it may be my favourite movie of the year so far. It’s the third from Robert Eggers, who previously directed The Witch and The Lighthouse, and I’m delighted to say he’s scored a hat-trick with The Northman.
I say Hamlet, but the script, penned by Eggers and Sjón is adapted more from the Nordic legend of Amleth (which itself served as the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet) though there are still scenes derived from iconic parts of the play, particularly Willem Dafoe’s Heimir as a parallel to Yoric.
The plot follows Prince Amleth, who as a boy sees his father murdered and mother kidnapped by his uncle. Swearing revenge, Amleth flees and returns decades later to kill his uncle and rescue his mother, along the way allying with the Russian witch Olga.
This is less of an introspective tale where our hero wrestles with the inability to see the consequences of his actions and determine what is right to do, and a more straightforward epic revenge tale with clear villains and the heroes out to stop them. Until the third act, that is.
After all, revenge tales are often about the toxicity of hate and the way it harms more than it hurts. It takes a long time for that penny to drop in The Northman, and I could be charitable to Eggers and say that it’s an attempt to lull you into a false sense of confidence is Amleth’s righteousness, but I think most moviegoers will foresee how this story will end.
The tragedy of Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth that he lacks the ability to comprehend nuance in his single-minded pursuit, and considers nothing but his own satisfaction as justification for committing atrocities. It’s a tale as old as time, and a character we’ve seen before.
I don’t mean to put the film down by implying that it’s simple, though it was certainly lacking one or two additional scenes where characters actually interacted without screaming at each other. Rather, the pre-determined plot, combined with a deep attention to historical detail and an artsy colour grading, lend the film a mythic quality.
The story is straight-forward, maybe, but a more appropriate word to describe The Northman would be primal. Animal motifs are sprinkled liberally throughout, and you’re carried from one harsh setting to the next, including frostbitten wastes and fiery slopes of a volcano.
There’s a fairly large number of action scenes throughout; surprising given Eggers’ earlier films were relatively quiet, character-driven affairs with almost nary a scuffle in their runtime. Despite being Eggers’ first real foray into action, without fail these scenes are pulse-pounding, visceral, and perfectly paced.
He achieves this not through showy camerawork (most are a single long take with a steady camera following Skarsgård on a dolly) but through solid choreography, incredibly detailed production, and committed performances from every actor.
I mean it when I say every actor. Eggers’ theatre background serves him well here in bringing out the biggest performance from everyone without becoming hammy. Skarsgård brings an impressive physicality to his performance as he hunches and stomps around the scene like the simple-minded brute Amleth is.
Nicole Kidman very nearly stole the show as she dominated from the second half onwards, while Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Bjork’s (yes, that Bjork) relatively small roles all left an indelible impression on the film. Last but not least, Anya Taylor-Joy and Claes Bang bring some much-needed subtlety that sustained the film.
One aspect of The Northman I adored was the semi-diegetic music. Characters chant, sing and bang drums almost constantly, blending seamlessly with the score. The feeling of immersion it brings is intense, especially in the long scenes of burly nude men rolling in the dirt and howling at the moon.
Speaking of those scenes, there’s a lot of them. I think your mileage may vary here; one viewer may be invigorated by the sheer ferocity of it all, while another may find it all a little silly, even laughable, which would be the death of a movie that takes itself as seriously as this.
Another place the film may lose you is in the dialogue. It’s far from being as incomprehensible as some parts of The Witch, but there were definitely some lines I had to piece together with context clues, which was an unwelcome distraction.
But even these aspects can’t bring down a film as thunderous as The Northman. It’s a true epic in the classic sense of the word, not in scale but in attitude. It’s dripping in style and sheer-bloody minded intensity that demands your attention to the end. One for the ages, I think.