The Northman – Review

The Northman It’s rather unbelievable to think that The Northman is only Robert Eggers’ third film. The director has made such an indelible mark on cinema with The VVitch and The Lighthouse that it feels like his back catalogue must be much more vast than it really is. Thus far, he has been able to deliver his own unique brand of the uncanny; horror mixed with the supernatural mixed with your own racing thoughts. He’s creating a different kind of indie cinema, and that’s always interesting to watch.

So, with The Northman, he has created his biggest film to date. Not just in terms of budget, but in terms of the scope of the overall project. The cast list is much glossier than his previous two outings – although Eggers’ regulars do make an appearance – and the narrative feels much more ambitious in terms of characters and locations. Does this indie favourite still cut it at this level?

In short, yes. Although this looks and feels much bigger, it still has Eggers’ stamp undeniably all over it. There are elements of the supernatural, gorgeous cinematography, violence, destiny and ritual. There is so much to unpack within this film that it is best to keep the plot synopsis simple. Having watched his father be slain by his jealous brother, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) returns to seek vengeance and reclaim what is rightfully his. The story is based on a Scandinavian legend that provided the basis for perhaps that famous fellow Scandi prince … Hamlet.

But this is no cossetted royal living in a castle. Life in AD 895 is brutal and unrelenting. The seemingly endless threat of being raped and pillaged; the lack of agency for anyone who isn’t wearing a cloak; the utterly miserable daily toil. Eggers takes verdant Scottish, Scandi and European landscapes and turns them into swampy, brown death traps. It all just feels so grim. That being said, there are some really beautiful visuals at play, too. Night time often sees the action dipped into black and white, with shafts of moonlight or fiery torches providing the odd streak of colour. It’s really cleverly done, lending the film a very arthouse feel. The sequences with the azure-eyed Valkyrie are particularly spectacular and a welcome visual break from gloomy reality.

Eggers has gone all out on detail, too, having co-written the film with Icelandic poet, Sjon. The constant presence of ravens recalls Odin’s familiars. Queen Gudrun’s (Nicole Kidman) clothes are often Celtic or European in style, to show they have been plundered. The Valkyrie has traditional markings on her teeth. There are nods to Scandi legends regarding sorcerers and seers. There really is no end to the amount of knowledge and care that has gone into each character, no matter how small the role.

There’s gorgeous, rumbling throat singing permeating the film. Those deep, vibrating sounds add to the sense of magic and ritual, which is so important to the plot. Being able – or unable – to outrun your familial destiny is at the heart of everything Amleth does. The spells, incantations and physical rituals provide the supernatural element. It’s perhaps strange and unfamiliar to us as viewers, which allows Eggers’ trademark sense of uncanny to flourish.

The Northman There’s also plenty of violence on display. We see noses sliced off; women and children burned alive; men being disemboweled and hanged. There really isn’t a part of the anatomy that you won’t have heard crunch or have seen spill out. Alexander Skarsgard’s incredible physicality lends itself perfectly to his warrior character. He grunts, roars and spits, hunching his shoulders and leaning on his knuckles. He’s a hungry animal; a wolf howling in the wind. His performance is superb. He is every bit as comfortable at the dramatic acting side – the dialogue often sounds like poetry – as he is in the action sequences. He is easily the best performance of the entire cast.

That is also perhaps because everyone else appears to be dishing up accent salad. We have everything from Anya Taylor-Joy’s character sounding like a Russian Bond Villain to Claes Bang sounding like he’s doing an impression of Swedish chef, despite actually being Scandinavian. Nicole Kidman’s Gudrun professes to be from Brittany but lord alone knows what vowel sounds are coming out of that woman’s mouth. This is the most off-putting aspect of the film and, if it’s like that to explain the transient nature of life at the time, that could have been represented in other less distracting ways.

There are a couple of pacing issues throughout the film’s meaty two hours and sixteen minutes run time where it feels like the plot is moving backward in order to go forwards, but these really are minimal. Overall, things flow smoothly, with all of the magic, subterfuge and violence keeping you thoroughly engaged.

The Northman is an audacious bit of cinema that swaps the horrific intimacies of Eggers’ previous work for a full-scale historical epic. It’s bloody and brutal; decadent and faintly dangerous. Another visually and narratively interesting entry in Eggers’ body of work.

The Northman is now showing in UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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