The Northman review: Robert Eggers levels up with a primal, poetic Viking epic
Eggers' latest historical epic stars a ferocious Alexander Skarsgard as a Viking berserker on a path of vengeance.
Fantasy and reality coexist in the films of Robert Eggers.
Reaching back through time to that unfixed point at which recorded history blurs into legend and allegory, the filmmaker’s cinematic folktales combine meticulous research with a sincere belief in the occult. Eggers’ worlds are alive with palpably authentic details, but they’re equally awash in images that cannot be explained in a way that makes the uncanny feel plausible and present.
It was never in doubt, for example, that dark forces lurked in the early American wilderness of The Witch, Eggers’ feature debut. Within that film’s first ten minutes, a baby was abducted by the titular, exceedingly real crone, who ground him up into a sticky paste to smear across her naked body. The Lighthouse, his twice-as-feverish follow-up, depicted two lighthouse keepers losing their minds while isolated during a fierce storm.
Egger’s latest marks a significant step toward the mainstream for a director known for his forcefully opaque arthouse visions. And yet, despite its bigger budget, all-star cast, and comparatively easier-to-parse narrative, The Northman is propelled by the same mixture of myth, madness, and overriding weirdness that’s become Eggers’ signature.
The Northman feels like a natural progression for Eggers, though it also constitutes his largest-scale undertaking to date: a brooding, blood-soaked Viking epic that cost $90 million to make. (The Lighthouse clocked in at $11 million, and The Witch was made for less than half of that.) Given the dramatically increased budget, it makes sense that Eggers’ latest is his most accessible work — not lit like The Witch, near-entirely by candle flame, nor stylized in The Lighthouse’s black-and-white, Academy-ratio format.
“Much easier on the ears.”
It’s also much easier on the ears. Whereas The Witch drew its Early Modern English dialogue right out of the Geneva Bible, and The Lighthouse studied the bawdy, salt-encrusted dialects of sea dogs from its era, The Northman mainly reserves its Old Norse and Old Slavic for sequences of ritual and prophecy. Eggers penned the script with Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, who also co-wrote last year’s Lamb. Their collaboration echoes the lyrical, mist-laden quality of family sagas from the region without cooling the fervent heat of the emotions fueling its protagonist.
Departing from the campfire tales and sea shanties of the director’s native New England, The Northman is based on the same Scandinavian folk story said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet — though its revenge-odyssey narrative operates along such a primal wavelength one could just as easily imagine Eggers discovering it inscribed on a cave wall.
The film opens with a homecoming, as the gloriously named King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), after an expedition abroad. Aurvandil’s young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak), is eager to one day inherit his kingdom, though an initiation ritual performed by the courtesan Heimir (Willem Dafoe) promises only that Amleth’s fate is sealed, without going into the particulars. (This sequence marks The Northman’s first detour into hallucinogenic, heavy-metal territory, complete with a crown dipped in blood and a Viking holding open his own chest to reveal a sacred tree with branches in Valhalla.)
“The camera shares his bloodlust.”
Shortly thereafter, Amleth’s uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), ambushes and murders Aurvandil in a bid for the throne, taking Gudrún as his queen and ordering Amleth slain. The boy survives, fleeing his homeland even as he vows to return and reclaim all that has been stolen from him.
Years later, the film picks up with an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), who lives among a group of Viking berserkers and is soon seen raiding a Slav village, scaling the walls and steadily advancing through its blood-slicked, mud-caked grounds. Eggers reteamed with The Witch and Lighthouse cinematographer Jarin Blaschke on The Northman, and their immersive, labor-intensive approach to shooting action — including this early sequence, captured with a single camera in one unbroken take — is a striking evolution of the naturalistic techniques they’ve employed previously.
As Amleth lays waste to countless Slavs charging in from all sides, the camera shares his bloodlust yet remains perfectly positioned to document the intensity of the surrounding battle. Such relentlessly striking, passionate camerawork is in steady supply throughout The Northman — one of a few technical fronts on which the film surpasses many bigger-budget blockbusters the American studio system has produced in recent years.
Once the village has been captured, and following a vision of a whispering seeress (Björk) in a feathered headdress, Amleth encounters Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic woman newly bound for slavery in Iceland. “Your strength may break men’s bones, but I have the cunning to break their minds,” she tells him, and the two eventually grow close. Amleth learns that Fjolnir is no longer king in the North Atlantic and now commands only a modest outpost on the side of an Icelandic mountain. It’s time, he decides, to take his revenge.
As Amleth sets this plot into motion, The Northman trades the majestic bearing and brutality of its first third for a slower-burning center. Though his classical style still owes a sizable debt to Scandinavian film legends like Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Northman feels most like Eggers’ faithful tribute to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, imbuing landscapes with a sinister presence that justifies the spiraling mental states of those foolhardy enough to try to tame them.
“A triumph of brute-force cinematic vision.”
Eggers is clearly fascinated by the duality of physical and spiritual realms in Norse culture, and he depicts both in vivid detail. Glimpses of Valhalla appear to Amleth throughout, and his quest to procure a mythical blade causes him to at one point venture below ground, where the boundaries between life and afterlife are even blurrier. The director finds an imposing natural fit for this focus amid the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, all raging fire beneath frozen mountains, a landscape that feels as primordial as all the magic and myth that exists within it.
Eggers is fortunate to have attracted Skarsgard to the leading role. Physically uncompromising and possessed of a singular, seething determination, the Swedish actor radiates Amleth’s rage but retains a deft-enough edge as a performer to shade his expressions with a more plaintive anguish and self-doubt. Like co-star Taylor-Joy, whose otherworldly appeal magnifies the film’s own, Skarsgard is one of those fearless actors who’s most at home navigating dark material. It’s a rare leading man who can convey the strange, sympathetic naivete of a character first seen sinking an ax into a horse, biting a man’s ear off, and howling at the moon like a wild animal, but such is Skarsgard’s power.
Mostly, though, The Northman registers as a triumph of brute-force cinematic vision. Atmospheric and consistently involving, it’s gorgeously shot and strongly acted, favoring a funereal progression for its revenge odyssey (a shift away from the escalating hysteria of Eggers’ previous films) that only accentuates the film’s mythic qualities. Moviegoers unfamiliar with The Witch and The Lighthouse might be taken aback by the ferocity of The Northman’s bloodshed, and the willfully strange marriage of all its blood, fire, and sorrow to a glittering spirit realm depicted without qualification. But for those already enamored of Eggers’ tightly controlled and mesmeric folktales, it won’t break the spell.
The Northman is in theaters Friday, April 22.