Sometimes I kick myself for not seeing a movie on a big screen during its cinematic run, and that’s how I felt after finally watching this ambitious, beautiful and brutal Viking revenge story soaked in blood and Norse mysticism.
I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!
I’m not really sure how I ended up missing out on The Northman when I absolutely loved Robert Eggers‘ previous two features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, which marked him as a genuinely singular talent that’s to be cherished in these times of increasingly homogenised mainstream cinema. Though the movie disappointed at the box office, I’m grateful that someone in Hollywood was prepared to take a financial gamble and see what Eggers could do with a bigger budget.
The story of a young Scandinavian prince seeking revenge against his uncle who killed his father and married his mother is an old and very familiar tale, but contrary to my assumptions, Eggers actually skipped past Shakespeare and went back further to the ancient Nordic sagas that had inspired Hamlet. His Prince Amleth is nothing like the eloquent philosopher musing on whether to be or not to be; as played by the splendidly ripped Alexander Skarsgard, he’s a ferocious berserker beast, driven by rage and blood lust.
Amleth begins the movie as a young wide-eyed boy on the cusp of manhood, overjoyed to see his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) return from a raid. A brutal ambush staged by Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir cuts his happiness short, as Amleth witnesses the death of his father at the hands of Fjölnir, the kidnapping of his mother (Nicole Kidman), and just barely escapes with his life while reciting his mantra of vengeance: Avenge father, save mother, kill Fjölnir.
Years later, Amleth grows into a dead-eyed berserker raiding and burning Slavic villages, when a hallucinatory encounter with a witch reminds him of his oath. He also learns that his treacherous uncle is no longer a king after losing his throne to Harald of Norway, and now lives as a farmer in Iceland. Though he can no longer be a king, Amleth can still have his revenge, and so he disguises himself as one of the slaves due to be shipped off to Fjölnir, and sails across the sea to confront his nemesis at last.
The bare description of the plot makes the movie sound like a conventional historical revenge epic, but I knew better than to expect a Viking Braveheart or Gladiator. Like Eggers’ previous two films, The Northman offers an immersive version of the past where authenticity and fastidious attention to detail mix with feverish, folkloric imagery that blurs the boundary between the real and the supernatural. Though Christianity gets a brief mention in the film, ninth-century Iceland is still steeped in the old Norse beliefs, rituals and traditions. The movie received praise for its accurate cinematic depiction of the Viking culture down to the smallest cooking utensils, while the Norse mythology gets the kind of trippy, out-there visual treatment that might make a casual viewer wonder just what the hell they’re watching.
The breathtaking cinematography makes effective use of the natural light, and captures the bleak beauty of the landscape that makes my heart ache at the idea that I almost made it to Iceland back in 2020. As a filmmaker, Eggers’ fidelity to the past goes far deeper than costumes and set designs: he’s clearly interested in depicting how people in the distant past thought, felt and perceived the world around them, without concessions to the modern sensibilities. Amleth inhabits a dark and cruel world where terror, chaos and death are never far away, reflected in the unrelenting graphic imagery that can be a hard watch at times.
Skarsgard’s feral intensity and powerful physicality are impressive throughout, but initially I found Amleth too much of a barren husk to really root for, despite the righteousness of his cause. Thankfully, during the second half of the film you do get glimpses of the man he might have been, especially when Amleth’s story becomes intertwined with Olga (bewitching Anya Taylor-Joy), another of Fjölnir’s slaves. Of the stellar supporting cast, Ethan Hawke brings an unexpected gravitas to his brief appearance as King Aurvandill, and Willem Dafoe gives another unhinged, chaotic performance as the king’s shamanistic fool. And if you ever needed someone to play a spooky Scandinavian seeress… why wouldn’t you cast Bjork? This cameo was clearly irresistible since it convinced Bjork to appear in a movie again after a 20-year break.
At first I wasn’t sold on Nicole Kidman, who I’m usually a fan of. Without intending to sound mean, it’s a bit hard to buy someone who’s obviously had plastic surgery as a character in a historical epic; it also didn’t help that I’ve recently re-watched Big Little Lies where she and Skarsgard play a married couple, so the idea of Kidman playing Amleth’s mother was disorienting to say the least. I did come around after one particular, positively Shakespearean scene where her acting is truly swinging for the fences and Amleth’s entire worldview is challenged.
I was captivated by Eggers’ gory, grimy and evocative vision from the beginning to the cathartic ending, and felt like I got a trippy Viking epic I never knew I really wanted. I can’t wait to see what he does next.