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REVIEW – “The Northman”: Old Norse Myth, By Way of Premium Drama

The Northman
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

If you were to ask me how to describe the experience of viewing The Northman, the response would be very complicated. Walking out of it with a packed house full of cinephiles and Viking enthusiasts wearing traditional garb, it all felt very dizzying, confusing, intriguing. Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) has proven, now in his third major feature, he likes to possess the viewer in a hypnotic trance. One where if the mind isn’t open ended, it will be difficult to stay invested. Even with enough mental preparedness, it’s impossible not to be impacted by the traumatizing undertones of his big budget Viking revenge plot. Call it a passion project, something the auteur had been gunning for his whole career. The passion likely meaning a chance to expose the less heroic corner of Norse mythology, its darkest basement of secrets. Almost like if Shakespeare traded sonnets for prog rock lyrics; poetic still, but far more barbaric and astrological.

Eggers, with co-writer Sjón (Lamb), places their story right at the turn of the tenth century, on the outskirts of what would be Iceland. Their hero is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a young prince working under the tutelage of his parents, the king and queen (Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke). The king’s been away fighting in a long standing war, so he’s delighted to settle down for a while, enjoy newfound peace. Ameleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bangs) then stages a coup to take over, killing the king, forcing the rest of his family to flee.

Amleth survives well on his own, training in the ways of a berserker, aka Viking warriors attuned to the earth with animalistic tendencies. By the time he reaches adulthood, he encounters the visions of a Seeress (Björk), warning him of the possibility to take vengeance on the nefarious Fjölnir for past transgressions. Trick is, he needs to infiltrate a slave farm in order to achieve close proximity, put his secret mission in motion. And once it begins, Eggers merely ignores the brake pedal, leaving the timing of events under serious question.

If this story appears familiar to the naked eye, it should. Eggers is essentially going at least three layers deeper on the typical revenge story, most of whom can often be attributed to Hamlet. Even the bard’s revenge tale was inspired by something. Eggers has done his research, turning the myth of “Amleth” into a $90 million barn-burner reminiscent of Game of Thrones, with the scandal, savagery, and sexuality to match. Other parallels do reside, mildly tickling callbacks to Clash of the Titans or 300. It’s Eggers’ playground now, running amok in the sandbox for the sake of a committed aura. He never loses sight of the moment, capturing the emotion on screen, and burying it into the ground just so that its timbre bears roots.

Right from the tragic opening, we can’t look away. And with its lengthy runtime, that need to shock and awe could tire out both eyes and brain, absorbing in the relevant ideas in play. I felt like I was gaining a prevalent feel for that rolling hill landscape, the ancient historical traditions, and the incipient grasp of old Norse poetry and language. Scholars in dialects be damned, for this is quite the workout. Cultural background is heavy, but appreciated. The core brutality of its time and its lineage to religious beliefs, even weightier. And the focus on character connectivity, unable to keep ballast.

It took nearly half the film to build any personal linkage toward Skarsgård’s otherwise heady, chipper, rock-solid portrayal of a prince without inspiration. Conflicted to many faults, his upbringing was nothing short of disjointed and sacrificial. This kind of character falls well in the actor’s comfort zone, mind sunk in torturous grief. Though it was an easier spot of time investing into Kidman’s role, namely her seduction and talon-sharp control holds mirroring a Grecian temptress. Hawke, for his brief screen time. The omniscient presence of Willem Dafoe as Amleth’s spirit guide, building up his wisdom with an unwavering aplomb. And most consequentially, the usually soft-spoken Anya Taylor-Joy eagerly taking up the warrior’s second in command, a voice of both rationality and outrage. A well-led ensemble all game to push the story forward, but it’s all still Skarsgård’s show, comfortable in the co-pilot chair, never minding where that dense blade of investment would fall.

Where and when that lack of individual expenditure shows proper dividends, Eggers gleefully keeps one eye on the lens, composing a museum-worthy image on a consistent level. Any period piece proves that belief, but here it’s different. Eye candy may not be distinct enough to report the bloody, earthy aesthetic at aim. Once more working with production designer Craig Lathrop and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, he’s giving the obscurity of myth a lasting visual memory. One best preserving the moment for all time, without giving in to standard fantasy movie archetype. One false step, and we might’ve been speaking on an unwelcome echo to Krull.

By all counts, there’s plenty of reason to cheer and clamor over Eggers’ long-gestating creative goal. In giving the Viking film, and the boat they rode in on, a fresh coat of paint, its future legacy is all but assured. The Northman may not have landed in my soul ideally. At first impression, its underwritten character dynamics and a tendency to draw out certain plot points left me disengaged. However, its underlying themes of romance, grief, theology and political upheaval, at a time when all of these concepts were very new, do so much to invoke further study, and warrant future rewatches. Consider it a future cult classic, harsh and gritty with the best of them. We probably just don’t know it yet. (C+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

The Northman opens in theaters April 22; rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity; 136 minutes.