‘The Northman’ Is Brutal, Basic Mythology (Movie Review)

Robert Eggers’ The Northman is the third major release from the artisanal director. He has been granted his biggest budget yet with a different studio, Focus Features, footing the bill. His previous features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, were A24 productions. The premise: a young prince’s father is killed by his uncle, and he vows revenge. This might seem like a Viking take on The Bard’s Hamlet, but Shakespeare’s play starring the most indecisive hero ever was inspired, in fact, by this Scandinavian legend. Thankfully, in terms of decision making, that leads to much violence, as Amleth (rhymes with Hamlet) isn’t on the fence when it comes to dismemberment. Alexander Skarsgård stars as the broody axe-wielding prince alongside a supporting cast including Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Defoe, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, and everyone’s favorite Icelandic pop star: Björk. How does an authentically shot Norse tale fare in an era where Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding superhero is the closest most audiences get to a Viking? It’s certainly not as funny as a Thor/Hulk team-up, but it’s way bloodier, so that’s something…

Eggers’ specific brand of mysticism meets authenticity is the filmmaker’s special sauce. You’ll swear the production went back in time to 900 A.D. Norway when, in actuality, Ireland was the primary filming location. Narratively, if there’s a lack of urgency and a mild case of predictability throughout the two-plus-hour runtime it’s because as mentioned earlier, most of us are familiar with Hamlet. The best reason to see the film on a big screen is the same as Egger’s 2015 debut, The Witch, execution. If one’s hoping for a thrilling tale that surprises and shocks well, this is not that. For as well made as the film is (i.e., REALLY WELL MADE), it’s little more than a fun exercise by a talented filmmaker than an inspired, thoughtful piece of art.

Written by Eggers and Sjón, the script’s ruminations on revenge, family, and fate are merely serviceable. The decision to be in Amleth’s head for most of the story allows for visual inventions but is structurally confining.  Fortunately, Jarin Blaschke’s photography invites us to drink in every ramshackle hut or stunning landscape. Costume designer Linda Muir keeps the bulk of the outfits period-appropriate, even when she’s dressing up Björk as a spooky soothsayer. The production design by Craig Lathop is top-notch.

If Michael Bay’s movies often feel like tech demos for new HDTVs at your local Best Buy, Eggers’ are the kind of glorious eye candy you’d catch a glance of while ordering a pale ale at a local microbrewery. The level of craft on display is never in question. From the moment we see the young prince (Oscar Novak) hiding in the woods, afraid not just for his own life but his papa’s, the dank stench of bearskin and the feel of the prickly thorns of a rotting bush are palpable. No one else in mainstream cinema makes films that feel so tangible.

The first big battle with Skarsgård as adult Amleth is arguably the best sequence in the film. The harsh, unforgiving nature of a man out for revenge is powerful. The actor is at his best when he communicates a range of emotions non-verbally. And he looks great. All that time in the gym paid off for the former Tarzan. The way he dispatches puny humans is the best kind of visceral.

Later, when he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow slave with her own plot for revenge, the two have onscreen chemistry even if the situation makes such a bond questionable (Complete with a tastefully shot sex scene). Witnessing Amleth and Olga scheme to take down the nefarious uncle “Fjölnir The Brotherless” (Claes Bang) works well to demonstrate the passage of time. Joy, whose performance was more internal in The Witch, adds much-needed texture as Olga.

The heart of the story is how Amelth’s righteous need for revenge becomes morally complicated as events unfold. We’re rooting for him to survive even when we’re not on his side as the bloodshed ramps up. Nicole Kidman as his mother, Queen Gudrún, delivers one of her best vamp roles in years. Other supporting members like Dafoe (who was excellent in Eggers’ The Lighthouse) and Hawke are reduced to cameos.

Three films in, Eggers has a strong stable of actors. There’s never been a bad performance in any of his movies. The problem here is more of the “not enough of it” variety. Kidman, in particular, really only gets one fantastic scene to chew scenery. Too often, the cast is memorable even if there’s barely enough time to dive deeper into their character’s psychology. Still, I definitely prefer this over, say, Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning revenge epic, Gladiator.

Perhaps a longer cut which relishes the weird over the action would be stronger. As it stands, The Northman is a good film by a great director. It lacks the “who’s this guy?” mark that his debut, The Witch, left. And it’s just not as fun or off-the-wall bonkers as The Lighthouse, his best film. Still, I can’t argue with how engaging The Northman is to experience as cinema. As an aesthetic object, it’s beautiful to behold even if there’s not a lot under such carefully constructed surfaces.


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