'The Northman' Shows That Bigger Is Better

Directed by Robert Eggers

Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Oscar Novak, Björk, Willem Dafoe

BY Paul DikaPublished Apr 19, 2022

Robert Eggers didn't take long to establish himself as one of the most intriguing young filmmakers of recent years. The director made an immediate statement with his folk-horror debut The Witch, a film that demonstrated his affinity for researching a specific period of history and applying it to a gripping story with extraordinary attention to detail. The same could be said about 2019's The Lighthouse, another period piece that felt authentic in every facet while telling a tale that, like The Witch, focused on characters tortured by fever dreams, driven by their insecurities and doubts. With The Northman, Eggers ups the ante in terms of scale without sacrificing the meticulous attention to detail of the period's aesthetic and folklore. 

Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic musician and novelist Sjón, The Northman follows the journey of young Amleth (Oscar Novak), prince and son to King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), who rule over their kingdom on the Irish coast in late 800 AD. After returning injured from his conquests overseas, King Aurvandil decides Amleth is ready to become a man and leads him through the same rite of passage he himself went through before becoming king. However, the morning after the ceremony, the king is betrayed and murdered by his jealous brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), at which point Amleth flees the village and swears vengeance on the man who killed his father. Some 20 years later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has joined a group of vikings who spend their days ransacking Eastern European villages. Having lost his way, he is visited by a Seeress (Björk), who foresees him carrying out his plan of vengeance, prompting Amleth to escape the group of vikings and disguise himself as a slave aboard a ship heading for Fjölnir's village in Iceland. After befriending a slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) aboard the ship, Amleth arrives and discovers his uncle has married his mother, and they now have a young son named Gunnar. From there, Amleth's patience is tested as he waits for the precise moment to exact his revenge. 

Compared to his first two works, The Northman may be Eggers' most accessible work to date. The language is still true to the period, but because of the narrative's simplicity and familiarity (the film loosely follows the folktale that inspired Hamlet), the dialect is never a distraction. That simplicity gives Eggers the room to plunge the depths of the characters' fears and faith. The most striking moments are when Amleth partakes in Norse rituals, like the initiation into manhood he experiences at the beginning of the film, or his interactions with the Seeress and he-witch, who guide him along his journey and foresee his fate. Real or not, these experiences are baked into Amleth's reality, and Eggers does a fascinating job capturing these transcendental moments as such.  

In line with his attention to detail and penchant for research, Eggers ensures The Northman is dripping with symbolic imagery. Ravens are never too far from Amleth, serving as a constant reminder of his father (whose war name was Raven) and their spiritual connection, while also suggesting a dark omen in regard to Amleth's fate. Wolves also play a large role, in that Amleth's been trained for years to inhabit the animal's traits (ferocious, aggressive and cruel), even though, as his father suggests, he must conquer or control those animalistic instincts to become a man. 

Eggers' vision is bolstered by strong performances from his most stellar cast to date. Skarsgård is loud and quiet at the same time, running the gamut of emotions as he grapples with the obstacles he encounters in his journey. Amleth's purpose and calling have been laid out for him in prophecies and fortunes, creating tension and uncertainty in his sense of self when things go awry. Skarsgård's execution effectively captures Amleth's complexity and internal struggles with precision from scene to scene. Anya-Taylor Joy's Olga compliments Amleth nicely, as she brings the warmth and compassion that Amleth has been without all his life. Olga provides an alternate perspective that prompts Amleth to become more introspective and question some of his actions. Paired together, the two actors give the film legs to carry it throughout the two-and-a-half-hour journey. 

Eggers has quickly established himself as an auteur with a specific voice, and The Northman proves that having a bigger budget only enhances his strengths. The film proves to be another immersive experience that will grip viewers from the opening sequence to its final moments. Unsettling at times, but never dull, The Northman delivers and Eggers continues to stand out as one of the most interesting directors working today.
(Focus Features)

Latest Coverage