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THE NORTHMAN (2022) review

April 28, 2022


written by: Sjón and Robert Eggers
produced by: Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, & Arnon Milchan
directed by: Robert Eggers
rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity)
runtime: 137 min.
U.S. release date: April 22, 2022 (theatrical)


A bloody Viking film by Robert Eggers starring Alexander Skarsgård? Sold; from the first time I heard about it. Of course, I still have to come to any film objectively and having seen this third feature film from writer/director Eggers, it’s kind of odd to say that it’s his most accessible. Indeed, if I were to point a newbie to the work of Eggers, I’d start with “The Northman” and work in reverse, mostly because his two previous bleak films were either too eerily intense or just plain out there. That being said I liked them both. “The Northman”, is definitely intense providing the filmmaker’s stylish aesthetic, and while its tale of revenge is certainly a bit more familiar, what Eggers does with the overall story exceeds expectations in many ways.

“The Northman” opens in 895 A.D. where we find King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returning home to Hrafnsey, an Icelandic village where his son, Amleth (a wide-eyed Oscar Novak, last seen as a young Bruce Wayne in “The Batman”) resides with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). The King is wounded from his conquests overseas and focuses his attention on his young son, raising him up in front of his people during a spiritual ceremony led by his jester, Heimir (Willem Dafoe), and attended by the King’s brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bangs). The next day Aurvandill includes Amleth in a age-old tradition in which the two get down on all fours and inhale a potent concoction while conjuring their inner animal. The next day, Aurvandill is killed in cold blood by Fjolnir’s masked men, witnessed by a hidden Amleth nearby. Horrified, Amleth escapes after seeing villagers slaughtered and his mother carried away screaming, and sets out to sea in a rowboat, swearing he will avenge his father, rescue his mother, and Fjolnir.

It’s a captivating opening, primarily due to the mise-en-scène that Eggers lays out as the players and story is established. You can smell the sour sulfur and putrid feces, as well as the fish from the sea. You can also feel the physical and mental anguish of these characters. Yes, the story begins to resemble Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the Scandinavian legend of Amleth was actually inspiration for the Bard’s classic. As the Norse story unfolds, there are other resemblances as well, of Conan and Beowulf, less mythology however and more folklore tales passed on from one generation to the next.



Years later, Amleth (Skarsgård) has developed into a fierce Viking, after having washed ashore and being raised by warriors. Still single-minded in his determination to the mantric-like vow he began as a youth, he soon learns of an opportunity to start down the path to his goal. When he learns that Fjolnir was defeated by Harald of Norway and lives in exile in Iceland, he disguises himself as a slave that is being transported to serve Fjolnir, his family and those still loyal to him. Beyond the grueling physical labor Amleth must endure, there is also the mental and emotional torment of seeing his mother with this new family that includes Thorir the Proud (Gustav Lindh), Fjölnir’s elder son and Amleth’s cousin and Gunnar (Elliott Rose), Fjölnir’s younger son that he had with Queen Gudrún, meaning  Amleth’s half brother. It’s a lot to take in, but Amleth remains steadfast in his motivations as he keeps his identity hidden.

On the farm, Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic slave who tells him she is a sorceress in a matter-of-fact manner. The two become close, as Amleth slowly begins to trust Olga with his secret agenda to kill Fjolnir. He receives an unexpected assist with his plan, when he encounters a He-Witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) one night after leaving the farm. Amleth is told that he must seek out a magical sword which can only be drawn at night. Equipped with the sword and the loyalty of Olga, Amleth sets out to exact his revenge on Fjolnir, but must contend with some unexpected truths that will challenge his fiery determination all these years and find him faced with decisions that will seal his future.

With “The Northman”, Eggers has now consecutively confirmed that his films stand out aesthetically, demand a second viewing, and are not for everyone. So far, they definitely stand out from just about everything else being made and his meticulous approach is apparent in terms of his historical and/or mythological accuracy which helps the immersive experience for the audience.




On that note, I was so unraveled at the end of his first feature, 2015’s “The Vvitch” that I still haven’t gone back for a second watch and I initially found 2019’s “The Lighthouse” to test my patience just as much as it tested the sanity of its protagonists. That doesn’t mean that these period pieces were bad. The exact opposite actually. They are both so bizarre and different that it took a while to align with them. After all the reading up on those two films, it’s a certainty that one day I’ll revisit them. “The Northman” is right in Eggers wheel house, crafting another period picture that showcases his sensibilities in a muddy and violent manner, unafraid to get messy while combining accuracies of a period piece with fantastical sensibilities of epic myth.

If the bones of this story sound familiar, that’s because “The Northman” is an adaptation of the Scandinavian legend, “Amleth” (which was the inspiration for the play “Hamlet” – you might’ve heard of that), but one can also glean the influence from other sword and sandal tales, like Beowulf and Conan the Barbarian. Eggers co-wrote the screenplay with Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson an Icelandic poet, novelist, and screenwriter, who goes by Sjón (he co-wrote last year’s unique Icelandic fable, “Lamb”), whom he was introduced to by Bjork (she has a memorable role as a Seeress in the film). Between Eggers and Sjón, a detailed and lyrical story is told.

Just as his last two films have proven, “The Northman” shows how Eggers has a penchant for research that can be seen in an array of details. From the language to the costumes to the overall production design (especially how and where things are made), it all adds to a wholly immersive cinematic experience wherein the actors can live and breathe in a believable (and, at times, fantastical) timeline that absorbs viewers, often branding unforgettable visuals and feelings in their minds long after viewing. This detailed approach to filmmaking is now a through-line in all his features, but “The Northman” is his boldest endeavor yet, offered a bigger budget for this larger scale production and delivering some standout cinematic sequences.



Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who collaborates with Eggers for the third time here, is in seamless sync with Eggers vision. Whether a scene is lit solely by quiet fire light or the eruptive bursts of lava, the camera work perfectly accentuates the mood and perpetual intensity of the story being told. A one-take action sequence where Amleth and his warrior comrades raid and destroy a village is not just violent and breathtaking, it’s also fluid and unsettling. While we already understand his plight, this establishes Amleth as a morally ambiguous character, slaughtering anyone in his path, including innocents, serving as a reminder that although Vikings have been cool forever, they’re also quite brutal and merciless. The camera work never flinches and rarely pauses to allow us to gather ourselves during these moments, but there is also a welcome balance of character reflection for both Amleth and Olga, allowing them to discover what they have together.

While there are moments of mysticism and high drama in “The Northman”, the main focus of this revenge tale is keeping things bruised and bloody, that refers to both the physical and mental impact of events. Apart from the rampant slaying throughout the film, there’s a hardcore mid-movie game that Amleth takes part of for the viewing pleasure of his uncle and mother. It’s called knattleikr, an ancient ball game similar to hurling that hurts just to watch. It requires agility and stamina, in order to prevent injury or death  and Egger leaves us with some unforgettable moments from the game. It all serves a purpose too, this game proves to Amleth (and viewers) just how far he is willing to go to get closer to his uncle in order to meet his ultimate goal.

It’s also a reminder that we don’t always have to be on board with or approve of the actions of a protagonist as they enact their revenge or become consumed by it. These characters can still be wholly compelling to follow and understand, even if they’re actions are cause chaos, loss, or are flat out reprehensible. Some are just so lost in their grief that taking matters to the extreme is the only way they can comprehend moving forward.



Speaking of extreme, Skarsgård is an absolute standout here. The Swedish actor has long been fascinated by Viking myths and culture, so it’s no surprise to see him join Eggers in this journey. Many will talk about his physical transformation for this role, and while he is fit for the part here, we’ve also seem him go to such lengths before in “Tarzan”. But, there is definitely more to this role for Skarsgård than just looking the part and he convincingly conveys all the necessary rage, inner turmoil and conflict, to propell Amleth forward. He’s always been great, but this is by far one of his very best performances. His scenes with Anya Taylor Joy add a softer dimension to Amleth’s character, which is welcome. The two actors are great together, showing how their character’s own inner strengths inevitably increase the more time they spend together. Both actors portray a certain amount of simmering nuance that resides under the surface, and both have their shining moments where all their growing emotions come to a released head. “The Northman” is worth repeated viewings just to watch these two lose themselves in mesmerizing performances.

The rest of the cast deliver supporting work that is quite memorable as well, with some surprises here and there. It’s great to see Hawke totally immerse himself in a period piece like this. His eyes come alive and express so much when he is with young Amleth, hoping to teach the boy ways to channel his inner beast. Claes Bangs is ruthless and despicable enough here without turning to cliche villain mannerisms. But it’s Kidman who eventually delivers some unexpected surprises primarily due to where her Queen character goes in this story. There’s a revelation that she has to deliver and she absolutely nails it with an appropriately uncomfortable approach that gives Amleth’s trajectory a hard turn. In a film that often requires a good deal of growling and yelling from the cast, these supporting roles really move beyond all that to accentuate the story’s intensity.

“The Northman” is an experience like no other this year. The story may be somewhat familiar, but the way in which Eggers and company tell it is impressive and unforgettable. You’ll witness unbridled fury and exquisite visuals, and in the end find yourself feeling as if you were just transported to another time and place.

While I’m not opposed to the Marvel sequels and legacy sequels (Top Gun: Maverick” is around the corner) that seem to occupy the regenerated multiplexes, it’s quite wonderful to see films like this and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” getting embraced this year as standouts.



RATING: ***1/2




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