Movie Review: The Northman

One-liner: A cold-blooded, dark, stellar, visceral and visually powerful Viking action adventure magpie epic in the key of Eggers.

The Northman is a dark action adventure drama from critically-acclaimed writer-director Robert Eggers, which retells the story of medieval Scandanavian figure of Amleth. The direct inspiration for Hamlet, The Northman takes a different path as Amleth flees after witnessing his father’s assassination by his uncle only to return decades later to free his mother and avenge his father.

Alexander Skarsgård seems like the perfect casting call for The Northman based on his heritage and physique. Having played Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan, he’s not afraid to strip down and uses his entire body to perform in this physically-demanding role. Skarsgård is a natural born warrior who is understated enough to carry Amleth’s burden but it’s also difficult to get behind the actor beyond the character’s circumstances. Skarsgård is aloof and while it’s satisfying to seem him rampage through his enemies, the emotional connection remains distant, unable to coax the same soulful forlorn and empathy of Maximus, for instance.

A worthy hero whose enigmatic airs help smooth things over opposite an equally cool and pristine, Anya Taylor-Joy, there’s enough steely-eyed conviction to power through with Conan appeal. The co-leads are supported by a stellar cast in Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, who while not basking in the limelight, raise the film’s profile and deliver on their promises. Claes Bang broke onto the international scene with The Square and follows through with a well-balanced and multi-faceted turn as Fjölnir the Brotherless. Ingvar Sigurdsson makes a worthy substitution for Stellan Skarsgård and it’s surprising (and yet not surprising) to see a cameo from Icelandic star, Björk.

Penned by Icelandic author Sjón and Robert Eggers, this dark and bloody Viking revenge saga shows the director expanding his scope whilst retaining many of his signature elements. Eggers has a number of trademark aspects at play in The Northman, yet it does feel like a wealth of film influences have culminated in this grisly Viking story. A visually-striking and often epic tale about a warrior turned slave on a lifelong quest, it has parallels with Gladiator from bloody battle sequences to more ethereal climbs.

The folk lore spin on The Northman, as our hero ingratiates himself into the life of a slave in Iceland, is reminiscent of Ari Aster’s Midsommar as ancient Scandanavian culture becomes the tapestry and backdrop for Amleth’s tale. In worship to Odin, many of the age’s beliefs seep into frame as he-witches prophesy and ritualistic ceremonies cleanse or prepare the community for a new chapter. Leaning into this spiritualism, fate compels Amleth who wishes to restore his rightful place in history as well as avenge his fallen father.

the northman film

“Are you not entertained?”

From dancing around fires to creepy rural ceremonies, there’s a serious overhang of The Witch in The Northman, swathing the film in a dark veil. Bombarded with intense scenes and an eerie tone, the pitch black energy recalls The Witch in moments summoning up magic and the claustrophobic confines of wood cabins on the darkest night.

These sometimes shocking interludes echo Game of Thrones, capturing a similar mix of magic and might from the medieval series. While the focus is on Amleth’s journey, Eggers still manages to create a magnitude to the visuals through long shots that pit the size of the world against the men who toil and their folly down below. Exquisite visuals pepper The Northman, adding scale and beauty to the film, moving from landscapes that harness Lord of the Rings and pastoral nature to volcanic fury.

The Northman is a feast for the eyes, crafting visuals that seamlessly intertwine and camoflauge reality from fantasy. While the gore can be quite disturbing in the vein of Midsommar and The Highlander, it’s counterbalanced by the unspoilt beauty of nature and the purity of humanity forging with and against the elements. The haunting styling and medieval pageantry also echoes moments from the visual masterpiece, The Green Knight.

Robert Eggers is a visionary filmmaker who has proven himself with The Witch and The Lighthouse. Perhaps the symbol of Odin’s raven gave Eggers the opportunity to treat The Northman like a magpie, gathering up the precious keepsakes and repurposing them in his own fashion. A true Eggers action adventure drama, fans will already be attuned to the artful dark horror edge to this epic quest but may be surprised by just how grisly it is with a tale that expands on the oft claustrophobic feel of his previous two gems. It may not be as emotionally-compelling, original or spellbinding as one would hope for based on the fine ingredients but still delivers a full spectrum of entertainment through its majestic world-building and driving intensity.

The bottom line: Fiery