Given his predeliction for deep dives into myths and history, it’s no surprise that Robert Eggers was drawn to Icelandic Sagas and Nordic legends for his third film, following his impressive debut The Witch and the magnificent The Lighthouse. Eggers chose to settle on the legend of Amleth, a patricidal revenge tale that is also the direct inspiration for Hamlet, although the director, with co-writer Sjón (the Icelandic poet who also wrote last year’s Lamb) deviates far more from the original story than Shakespeare’s play did. But what The Northman might lack in faithfulness to its source narrative, it makes up for in attention to detail and world building.
The result is a peculiar and engrossing film. It’s clearly drawn from an auteurist vision, but the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be; a blend of a Conan-like medieval action epic with layers of strange otherworldliness and atmosphere that don’t quite marry. Eggers has hinted in interviews that the film didn’t come out as he intended, and that the studio requested re-edits after early test screenings to add clarity for bewildered audiences, so perhaps the final cut was a victim of compromises. But despite its flaws The Northman is a visually stunning and fascinating action film that feels rich, lived-in and mythic.
The storyline is mostly a straightforward revenge saga. Amleth as a child witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang, The Square) murder of his beloved father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and capture his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and flees by boat searing future vengeance. Years later, adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), raised by a band of Vikings as a beserker, is encouraged by a prophesy that his revenge is imminent. He sneaks aboard a slave ship bound to Iceland where Fjölnir now lives in exile, befriending Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) on the journey. When they land ashore, the indentured slaves plot their retribution on Fjölnir and his family.
The Northman is a very earthy, elemental film; wild untamed natural landscapes of deep forests, craggy black mountains, icy glaciers, grey seas and a fiery volcano, all imbued with a vast foreboding. The villages are muddy quagmires that would put Monty Python’s Arthurian sets to shame. The characters in this harsh environment are also wild, strong and brutal. Eggers makes much of the Vikings’ berserker culture, and particularly a kind of savage spirituality where the men invite the spirits of wolves or bears to possess them so they can be fierce and untamed in battle.
And the battle scenes are indeed brutal, most notably in an extended single-shot attack on a village where muscle-bound Skarsgård and his companions mercilessly massacre the inhabitants with sword and axe. It’s impressive stuff, and deftly choreographed and blocked, even if these sequences sometimes feel like a point-of-view computer game (echoing Amleth’s own single-mindedness). The visual styling quickly goes beyond the initial resemblances to ‘Game of Thrones’ or the near-monochrome warriors of 300. More unfortunate, however, is the brief but direct lift from the concluding barn scene in Come and See, but without the gravitas or emotional impact despite the dark soundtrack and screams that accompany it.
And this, I think, exhibits the central problem with The Northman: we’re kept at a distance and rarely get to empathise with or understand the protagonists. They’re kept just too remote. Even the relationship between Amleth and Olga with its moments of quiet tenderness don’t quite feel real. Skarsgard is emotionally distant, his one-track mind and feral, wild and almost sadistic nature make him a blank. Perhaps that distance is deliberate – these are after all meant to be myths, and there are plenty of fantastic elements in this film – but it prevented me getting fully invested in this film, unlike Eggers’s previous more modest chamber pieces.
Nevertheless there’s plenty to behold and enjoy, and the narrative maintains a strong momentum. The cinematography and production design is impressive and immersive, and the director has clearly carefully storyboarded every shot – it looks amazing. The sound design is just as impressive as the visuals; the heavy score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough layers esoteric instruments including Icelandic drone zithers and lyres as well as conventional strings and driving ritualistic percussion. It works immensely amidst the hacking crunches when steel meets bone, the wolverine battle cries and tumultuous weather.
As in Eggers’s other movies, there’s a richness to the world-building, not just in the visuals and sound but in the details. In The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson both adopted carefully researched contrasting accents and speech mannerism that sounded archaic and otherworldly to our ears and defined each character’s background. Eggers has taken the same approach in The Northman – who knows what a ninth century Viking accent sounded like, but I could readily believe they spoke with the burring ‘r’s and peculiar vowels that the director has his cast pronounce.
And the relatively straightforward action/revenge narrative is enlivened by mythical elements that add much colour and strangeness. Highlights include a small role from Willem Dafoe presiding over a strange animalistic rites-of-passage ceremony, and Bjork as a otherworldly seeress with elaborate head gear. Birds make a reappearance again with a mystic significance; in The Lighthouse it was Promethian seagulls and in this film it’s flocks of black ravens that seem to be sent by Odin himself.
Amleth’s quest of vengeance against his villainous uncle is at first imbued with a single-minded virtuousness that seems to justify his brutality (and after all this is a brutal world). His childhood vow to avenge his father, save his mother and slaughter his uncle is initially heroic. But gradually Eggers invites the viewer (and eventually perhaps Amleth) to question the purity of oath, of the mission that consumes him entirely. The morality gets messier and previous scenes reframed, and in this way Eggers introduces a friction between the prophesised and predestined act of vengeance and its now-questionable justificiation. But even though he is tempted, Amleth cannot escape his fate.
This moral ambiguity is partly achieved in the female roles of Olga, Amleth’s love interest, and Gudrún, his mother. Olga, played by an alien Anja Taylor-Joy, is an elfin beauty who makes up for her physical fragility with a cunning ingenuity, offering an alternative to the starkly violent ways that Amleth has adopted (as she wittily observes, she is no Valkyrie). Even more impressive is Nicole Kidman’s brief maternal role; early scenes suggest that youthful Amleth harbours incestuous desires that Gudrún later manipulates and exploits, and Kidman’s stellar performance brings a destabilising layer to the tale. The Northman adopts Hamlet’s central Oedipus complex as an underlying character motivation for Amleth, together with his concurrent procrastination when faced with the opportunity to enact revenge on his murderous uncle.
But of course eventually he must act, and when he does the single-minded masculine demands of honour and duty overrule any ethical doubts around the intoxication of vengeance. Eggers film manages to both celebrate and undermine its mythical quest, and presents us with a vast world that’s visceral and strange. It might be Eggers’s most commerical film to date, and certainly his biggest budget, but it retains his singular vision despite studio pressures. If only more arthouse directors could achieve the same when the big studios come beckoning.
The Northman was released in UK cinemas on 15th April 2022Follow @davefilmblog