“The Northman” stars Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe. Released on April 22, 2022, the film is about a prince who goes on a perilous journey to avenge his father.
The film was directed by Robert Eggers, who also directed “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”. The story of Hamlet has been told multiple times throughout history in many different types of media. Whether it’s through film, books, or television, William Shakespeare’s tale of revenge has lived on as one of the author’s most iconic works of all time. Most of the adaptations we got aren’t precisely direct adaptations of the source material, but they did take inspiration from it, especially Disney’s “The Lion King”. I mean, where else did that film originate from? “Kimba the White Lion”? Today, we have another movie that’s inspired by the Shakespearean tale, mainly from the legend of Amleth, and it’s set in a world filled with Vikings and revenge-seeking warriors. Don’t expect this one to feature characters breaking into song every few minutes. This film sees acclaimed filmmaker Robert Eggers stepping away from the horror genre for the first time in favor of helming a historical epic filled with violence and vengeance. However, he still has the same dreary nightmarish style that made him a household name. I became a fan of Eggers after watching one of my favorite films of 2019, “The Lighthouse”. His directorial debut, “The Witch”, was decent, but his terrifyingly nerve-racking sophomore debut was what really got me intrigued with his talent. So I was pretty excited to see him take on another movie that’s more action-driven than his previous efforts. Plus, who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned revenge film set thousands of years before technology? With that in mind, let’s dive into this brutal world and see if it marks another strong hit for the filmmaker.
The story takes place in A.D. 895 and follows Amleth (Skarsgård), the prince of the Irish coast kingdom and the son of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Kidman). After returning from his conquest overseas, Aurvandill decides to bestow his responsibilities to Amleth. One day, masked warriors sent by Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Bang) ambush the father/son duo, with Fjölnir murdering the king in cold blood and seizing the kingdom. After escaping, Amleth is eventually found by a band of Vikings and raised among them as a berserker. Years later, Amleth treks across the dangerous lands to avenge his father’s death and save his mother from his selfish uncle. During his quest, he comes across several characters, including Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), a Slavic sorceress.
The movie is basically “Hamlet” in the Viking era, in which Amleth comes of age while journeying through Hell to overthrow a family member. From my perspective, I would identify it as an R-rated “Lion King” without any talking animals and musical numbers. Instead, this Shakespeare-inspired historical epic presents only death, violence, sorcery, and despair for the adults to witness. I heard plenty of people saying that it reminded them of “Braveheart”, but since I haven’t watched that film yet, I can’t tell if I agree with this comparison or not.
“The Northman” has the look and feel of an epic blockbuster that consists of a revenge plot and action set pieces to get people’s hearts pumping. However, the movie represents more than just your ordinary fantasy adventure. It’s along the lines of a complex, character-driven action drama about a former prince driven by vengeance and trauma. It’s an old-fashioned revenge tale about a man internally tormented by his past and seeking to find peace within himself while avenging his father. This direction serves as both a strength and weakness depending on what people prefer. Like Eggers’s previous movies, “The Northman” is an arthouse film disguised as a modern genre movie that drives people to the cinemas. They believed that they were getting a blood-knuckled historical action blockbuster. Instead, they got a slow-paced, dialogue-driven, and weirdly disturbing action drama that happens to look like a modern blockbuster. The people who wanted the former would possibly find it either boring, alienating, or both. However, other people might enjoy it for its distinctive narrative and originality.
I belong in the group that didn’t mind “The Northman” being an arthouse blockbuster, mainly because I loved every minute of this incredibly bizarre and magnetically absorbing revenge epic. Sure, the pacing, small amount of action scenes, and its two-hour-plus runtime may be mind-numbing for modern audiences, but they rarely reach the point where they make the film an aimless snooze-fest. At least, from my perspective. Every scene is a bleak and majestic piece of eye candy that resembles cinematic art through its production design, lighting, creepy imagery, and visual effects. It also helps when it has an engaging and somehow poetic plot. Those things make for another unique and visually enthralling experience from one of the most imaginative filmmakers in recent memory.
Additionally, the cast was compelling enough to match the film’s masterful quality, especially the collaborators who previously worked with Eggers. Skarsgård was incredibly riveting in his role as Amleth, as he effectively captures the character’s internal pain and rage with raw intensity. Kidman and Bang also delivered some great performances as Gudrún and Fjölnir, respectively, especially the former for the one scene with Amleth alone. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to provide her impressive talent onscreen regarding her performance as Olga, and Willem Dafoe is still a delight, even though he’s not in the film that much.
Eggers is mainly known for providing distinguished visual storytelling and rich dialogue in his films regarding his direction and screenplay. However, he’s also known for delivering grimly nightmarish and unnerving scenes without relying on jump scares and over-the-top gore. While the stories may not be acceptable to everyone, the filmmaker knows how to leave a lasting impression with his quality and disturbing essence. “The Northman” is no different, with Eggers blanketing its sadistic historical period with his gloomily gorgeous vision and eye-catching imagery. The film also marks the latest collaboration between Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, following “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”. Blaschke has delivered some of the best-looking shots in Eggers’s previous works, ranging from his still shots to the panning shots. His cinematography in “The Northman” is just as impressive as in those films. He successfully captures the fantastical and savage nature of the film’s grim world and the violence. The music by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough was also superb in capturing the aesthetics of the movie’s historical setting.
Overall, “The Northman” is a gripping revenge epic that also works as a grimly majestic piece of cinematic art. Its pacing and lack of constant action may be daunting tasks for those who dare to take on this quest. But, if they’re brave enough to make it past these obstacles, they might be rewarded with something truly remarkable. That’s what I did, and let me tell you, the reward was worth it, in my opinion. From its irresistible cast to Eggers’s incredible vision, the movie further establishes the filmmaker as the new master of cinema. So, if you loved the director’s previous works, or maybe you’re in a mood for something original, this bloody quest is definitely worth taking.