The Northman

Posted: May 6, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke.

Seen in April

The year is 895 and King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) returns to his kingdom on the Irish coast from his conquests overseas and reunites with his wife Queen Gudrún (Kidman), and his young son, Prince Amleth. Injured in battle Aurvandill decides to bestow his crown on his son and the two undertake a spiritual ceremony. Next morning they’re attacked by Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang) and his men. Fjölnir kills Aurvandill, takes his kingdom and his wife for his own and young Amleth is forced to flee, swearing vengeance on his uncle and vowing to save his mother.

Amleth is raised by a band of Vikings. Now an adult (Skarsgård) he has become a berserker. After helping to subdue a village in the lands of the Rus he encounters a seeress who tells him he will soon have a chance to enact his vengeance on his uncle. Shortly afterwards Amleth learns that Rus slaves are being sent to Iceland, where Fjölnir, now lives in exile having been overthrown. Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth allows himself to be taken to Iceland. On the journey he meets another slave, a woman named Olga (Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a seeress.

Set to work on his uncle’s farm Amleth begins to plot his revenge! 

Following on from The Witch (or The VVitch as its styled, a film I appreciated much more on second viewing) and The Lighthouse (a film I still need to see) Eggers’ third film is a different beast entirely, albeit one that clearly sticks to his artistic integrity. The major change is one of budget. The Northman is a full-on blockbuster with a budget rumoured to be in the $70-90million range, a huge upswing compared to the Witch’s $4 million and The Lighthouse’s $11million and not bad at all for only his third feature length film. It’s fair to say every dime is up there on the screen, from epic battles to sweeping vistas (Ireland standing in for Russia and Iceland) and it’s certainly a full-blooded film.   

Eggers hasn’t compromised his vison however, at least insofar as it comes to authenticity. His evocation of the 9th and 10th centuries feels incredibly real. A time of darkness and dirt, violence and hardship. Likely he’s taken artistic licence but just as likely this is probably as accurate a Viking blockbuster as you’re ever going to get. Much of the dialogue is in English but a fair amount is in Norse with subtitles.

As Amleth  Skarsgård is well muscled and stoic, and one can certainly believe he’s a Viking berserker. Taylor-Joy is an actress I’ve admired since I first saw her in The VVitch (credit to Eggers who manages to include all three of the main players from his debut feature in this film) and she’s good here, although her part feels wafer thin, she’s mainly there to give Amleth an ally, and someone to fight for. I didn’t recognise Bang as Fjölnir until I saw the end credits. He’s good as the bad guy, though perhaps not the character you initially think he is. For me the standout is Kidman however, though much like Taylor-Joy she’s short-changed when it comes to screentime. Still, it’s nice to see her in such a meaty role, and it’s definitely the best performance of hers I’ve seen in a while (and given she’s usually good that’s hardly faint praise) and in respect of her character Eggers does some interesting things. Always good to see Ethan Hawke in anything but this is little more than a cameo sadly.

So great cast, good direction and cinematography and an indie heart married to a blockbuster head.

So why didn’t I enjoy this more?

Partly it’s the story that lets it down. Based upon an ancient legend and it feels old. Seriously, the rightful heir escapes his death as a child and returns as a man to get his vengeance is a story we’ve seen time and time again, and no amount of money can quite make up for a generic plot.

Pacing wise the story trudges at times, and I’ll admit to shuffling in my seat more than once and wondering how long was left to go. The mystical elements don’t quite chime with the grounded nature of the world Eggers has created either. He seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, and while ambiguity worked well in The VVitch, it jars here. How authentic can the world you’ve created be after all, when the hero has a magic sword that can only be unsheathed at night?

Visually impressive yet something of a slog, this is a film I admired more than I actually liked. Not terrible by any means but this Viking epic didn’t exactly pillage my emotions.    

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