“You must choose between kindness for your kin and hate for your enemies.”
As far as I can tell, I have never seen a true Viking movie in my life. I’ve seen films WITH Vikings, for sure, where they are a small factor of a larger setting. But anything where this time period or lifestyle are the main focus of a feature film has either been nonexistent or so obscure I can’t find it anywhere. I also have not seen the Vikings TV series, although I understand that it’s supposed to be very popular.
In any event, when Robert Eggers announced that his next film would be a film set in the world of Vikings, I became so ecstatic. Eggers’ previous two films, The Lighthouse and The Witch (Or The VVitch, if you prefer that), were so well-crafted and masterful that it’s almost infuriating. He has such an eye for period-accurate detail and ensuring that everything shown on-screen feels authentic, from the costumes to the dialects to the labor and ritualistic customs of the time. So seeing him apply that for a pre-Medieval setting was wildly exciting. And having seen The Northman, it’s clear that Eggers should be considered one of the greatest and most singular auteurs of his generation. It’s easily his most ambitious and sprawling movie to date.
Beginning in 895 AD, Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, the warrior prince of a kingdom on the island of Hrafnsey. As a child, he idolized his father King Aurvandill War-Raven and his mother Queen Gudrún, played by Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman, respectively. However, after being officially made the heir to the kingdom, his uncle Fjölnir the Brotherless, played by Claes Bang, murders the king and takes both the throne and the Queen for himself, forcing Amleth into exile. Years later, Amleth, an experienced berserker, learns that Fjölnir has fatally weakened his position and is now living in relative seclusion. Seeing the opportunity, Amleth teams up with a Slavic sorceress named Olga, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, and sets out to avenge his father and fulfill his destiny.
Like his previous works, Eggers has a keen understanding of what the human condition entails. Primal instincts such as rage and violence are seen here not as “inhumane” but as a fundamental part of man’s nature, which is exacerbated by the time period in which it is set. This is an extremely brutal and unflinching story about a man who’s determined to get what he believes he’s fated to have. His actions are harsh and jaw-droppingly violent, and the film is smart enough to ask audience members the difficult question of whether what he does is ever justified. Especially since the film makes it clear just how much collateral damage and innocent blood is left in his wake on his path for vengeance. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising to learn that the legend of Amleth was a key inspiration for William Shakespeare to write his play Hamlet.
The Northman also does an astounding job of making the world of Vikings feel real and palpable. The film highlights not only the old rituals and traditions the citizens would often partake in, but it also shows the more fantastical elements of this angle. The Norse Gods are worshipped and referenced many times throughout and the way these characters talk about them make them sound almost like real people that they vigorously follow their lives by. One example is singer Björk, in her first narrative role in nearly 20 years, who plays a mysterious witch who gives Amleth his prophecy. Because of this, and the occasionally stilted dialogue that sounds meant for prose, those hoping for a more grounded, wholly realistic approach to this era may be disappointed. But the surprises help give a slight horror element to the story and are part of what makes it such a special and captivating experience.
I’ve seen Alexander Skarsgård in many projects over the years, but this is easily his best work as an actor. As Amleth, there is so much unkempt fury and brutality, and before he officially begins his quest against Fjölnir, he has an incredibly difficult time finding a right way to put it. There’s also a hint of sadness to him. He was robbed of a childhood and parental figures and has resented the world for it ever since. This mission is all he has thought about since he was forced to flee his home. It’s clear that until he comes across Olga, he has never opened up to anyone about his internal demons and is thoroughly convinced the gods have prepared a great destiny for him.
Speaking of Olga, Anya Taylor-Joy is an absolute showstopper in her second collaboration with Robert Eggers. A Slavic sorceress in the same slave troupe as Amleth, she is extremely intelligent and calculating in her decision-making. “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds,” she says to him after seeing a display of his brutish power. In many ways, her character is more justified and deserving of justice than Amleth is, as we see the hardships she faces as a slave of Fjölnir. Although their relationship initially starts as completely platonic and functionary, a genuine connection soon grows, and the mission becomes all the more personal.
Together, they are rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors in parts large and small. This includes Nicole Kidman as the mysterious and ruthlessly cunning Queen Gudrún, Claes Bang as Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir who’s desperate to hold onto his power for as long as possible, Willem Dafoe as the unseemly and legitimately creepy jester of King Aurvandill’s court, Gustav Lindh as Fjölnir’s prideful and arrogant son, and Ethan Hawke as Amleth’s late royal father. Each one of them adds something unique to this story and makes it feel much richer. Bang is particularly attention-grabbing as Fjölnir, the antagonist who’s always on Amleth’s mind throughout the movie. What’s so compelling about him is that he’s not the moustache-twirling villain these types of stories usually call for. He’s legitimately tired and willing to do whatever it takes so that his line can continue long after he passes.
From a technical standpoint, The Northman shows that Eggers still has a firm grip on his voice even on a larger scale. His regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke returns for their third collaboration and holy moly, it’s a doozy. While it trades in the boxed-in, black-and-white photography of The Lighthouse for more colorful fare, it’s no less intense or gruesome. Many moments are lit purely by firelight, which shows off the dirty, sweaty griminess of these characters. The film is filled with lengthy long takes, both of intense action scenes and more dramatic moments. The blocking within these shots is always clear and easy to follow, making it all the more riveting to watch. And of course, this being a historical epic, there are a number of impressive swooping establishing shots of the landscape.
This goes hand-in-hand with the editing job by Louise Ford, yet another of Eggers’ regular collaborators that makes a return. If there are cuts within any of the aforementioned long takes, they were hidden really, really well because they were all perfectly paced. But during moments where there are more frequent cuts, it’s handled beautifully and manages to keep you focused on what’s important in the scene. Even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, there’s very little fat on this picture. Every moment is edited with purpose and class.
The instrumental film score is a joint effort handled by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough and boy. do they deserve more recognition for their work here. Much like the film itself, it’s intense. Most of the tracks consist of deeply percussive elements such as drums and rattles, while also making room for strings. Although there’s not really a singular theme or leitmotif, it’s still easily identifiable in the war-like rhythms it creates for battle sequences. The strings also do a tremendous job at capturing not just the moments that feel closer in proximity to horror, but also in more somber, emotional moments. It’s a surprisingly diverse soundtrack that perfectly fits the era that it fits.
With a clear sense of personality, a daunting scope, and an unbelievably detailed world, The Northman is an authentically brutal and amazingly well-realized story of revenge. Robert Eggers has done it yet again and conquered one of the least-seen time periods in cinema with his own definite stamp on it. Armed with an incredibly committed cast and a phalanx of behind-the-scenes artists who are just as passionate as him, he has crafted a piece of epic filmmaking that both feels personal and mainstream at the same time, in the best way possible. This might easily be the greatest movie about Vikings ever made, as every single facet of what’s on-screen comes to life in such an organic and meaningful way. I can’t wait to see it again.