With the stunning artistic achievement of his latest work “The Northman”, Robert Eggers earns his place as one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today.
Eggers excels in creating uneasy environments filled with characters confronting their dark fates. Both “The Witch” (whose main cast is peppered throughout this latest film) and “The Lighthouse” were small, intense, and unnerving films that centered on a few souls walking an uneven balance between this world and the darkness.
For “The Northman”, the director stays with this type of theme, opening up his vision to a bigger canvas, and telling his tale of revenge as a grand Viking saga.
The film centers on Amleth, a Viking prince from Scandinavian legend.
As a boy, the prince is played by Oscar Novak. The film begins with the return of his father, King Aurvandil (a fantastic Ethan Hawke), from war. After a brilliantly bizarre bonding moment where father prepares son to be a strong king, Aurvandil is murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (a stone-cold Claes Bang), who proceeds to destroy his sibling’s kingdom and kidnap Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún.
It is said that the tale of Amleth inspired Willam Shakespeare to create “Hamlet”. Be that fact or lore, the similarities to the story of the Danish prince stop there.
Nicole Kidman is Gudrún and finally returns to giving an interesting and fully committed performance after too long a while. Her skills as an actress aren’t always apparent in the roles she chooses of late, and for too long the actress has used the same cold, side eyed, execution from film to film. As Gudrún she is vicious, cunning, and tragic. It is a fine and nomination-worthy work.
The film moves to years later and finds Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård, giving the performance of his career) existing within a tribe of Viking warriors who raid villages along the Slavic lands.
Amleth has become the most powerful of combatant. He is a man of pure muscle and strength and near-unmatched ability to strike fast, kill hard, and keep away from the gates of Valhalla until his life’s mission is complete, but this is no mere savage. Amleth is moving through this world of war and death until he avenges his father and saves his mother. His vow to do just that is the mantra that drives his existence.
While this film is very much an epic tale of battle and revenge, Eggers and co-writer Sjón (Björk collaborator Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) dodge audience expectation and fill their screenplay with mysticism and artfully presented psychological quandaries.
Anya Taylor-Joy takes the important role of Amleth’s love interest Olga and is more than just his connection to the human heart that still beats within him. The character may have a mysterious link to the supernatural and exists as Amleth’s guide down his path of destiny.
Amongst the blood and battles, Eggers finds the perfect tone as the picture blends the mythological with the historical. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the filmmaker succeeds at the visual reconstruction of the period while casting an artistic aura that intensifies the power of the Viking imagery. Always visually creative and interesting, Eggers’ shooting style has never been so fluid.
The entire piece is driven by a rousing and thunderous score from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough that uses tribal throat singing, powerful war choruses, and pounding drums; each queue placing the viewer into the time and mindset of the Viking warriors.
“The Northman” is a primal film born of blood and steel, and one infused with the warrior spirit of a filmmaker like John Milius.
Robert Eggers has delivered a true stunner of a picture; a work of powerful intensity and cinematic fury driven by a true artistic eye. This is the kind of film (and Eggers is the type of director) that modern cinema so desperately needs.
As one character says, “I want the strong ones! Don’t give me the weak ones!”
“The Northman” is a strong one.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Screenplay by Sjón & Robert Eggers
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang
R, 136 Minutes, Focus Features/ New Regency Productions