TL;DR – The Northman is unrelenting, uncomfortable, unyielding, and uncompromising
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Disclosure – I was invited to a press screening of this film
The Northman Review –
When I heard that Robert Eggers was making a new film, I was interested because his last work, The Lighthouse, well, it was ‘a lot’, but it was also fascinating from start to finish. Then I heard it would be a Norse epic tale of revenge and carnage. Well, I was intrigued. But when I heard that early reviews were calling it ‘impenetrably Norse’, I had to check it out because that is my jam.
So to set the scene, in 985AD, on the Atlantic coast, young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) looks out into the sea and sees that his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), has returned from his raids. With his Mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), he greets his father and discovers that he was wounded in the last battle. After Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) arrives, Gudrún counsels her husband that Amleth needs to start the process of becoming a man. Aurvandill takes Amleth to the Heimir (Willem Dafoe), the fool and seer, to have a vision. But as they leave the temple, Aurvandill is ambushed and murdered, and as Amleth runs, he sees that the murderer is his uncle Fjölnir. Many years later, in the Lands of the Rus, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker taking out villages when he is reminded of his duty to avenge his father’s murder.
Before we dive deeper into this review, I probably need to forward this with a bit of a warning. This is a very particular film, meaning it can be very dark and brutal. Some moments made me feel deeply uncomfortable, as it does not shy away from parts of Norse culture that other shows tend to either ignore or simplify as just barbarians doing stuff. But that means that you will be watching our protagonist do some pretty messed up stuff. Look, not that I would ever suggest taking illicit substances before watching a film, but this is one that you really don’t want to be on a trip when it starts because when it starts delving into its visions, that is enough of a trip on its own.
The next factor we must explore is the visual presentation because this is where the film truly shines. There are these moments where the movie removes all restraint and cries havoc, much like that moment with the Valkyrie that you may have seen in the trailer. They explode into your face with a gusto I have rarely experienced. Conversely, most of this film is presented with only natural light sources as illumination. Given that a lot of the movie is delivered at night, this could have made The Northman look dull or dingy, but instead, vibrant and dark. It lends itself to the narrative exploration of what happens in the shadows. All of this is supported by a combination of exquisite locations and targeted visual effects to make a world that is both ancient and bleak but also astonishing and beautiful. Seriously, you need to work hard to make Iceland look bad. All supported by a musical score that does not miss a beat.
While the setting and visuals are essential, it is the cast that brings life into these worlds, and this is another of The Northman’s strengths. Every cast member is both metaphorically and literally throwing themselves into the role. There is a scene at the start where a shaman inducts the berserkers into their rage before they attack. Every person in that scene, Alexander Skarsgård and a bunch of excellent stunt players, are giving every ounce of their bodies and energy into the performance, and it shows. Skarsgård nails brooding in a way that does not feel cheap. Every moment of his performance is full of power. Nicole Kidman delights as the Queen, who is torn between two families, and Anya Taylor-Joy brings such intensity to every scene that she might be the MVP of this film. Indeed, even those cast members that might only be in one scene, like Willem Dafoe and Björk, leave an impact because they leave everything on the table.
Where things may or may not work with you is the narrative. I mentioned at the start that it had been referred to as ‘impenetrably Norse’, and there are places that I think that is a very fair assessment. There is a lot of iconography and story beats that may only make sense to you if you have a passing knowledge of the mythology. But on the other hand, given a lot of this narrative is, ‘what if Hamlet stopped soliloquy-ing and actually did something’ is a concept that I think people will be able to grasp onto. The story itself, look, I think it will be very divisive with people, and I myself am still processing it after watching it last night. I will say that no matter what, it did engage me for its entire runtime.
In the end, do we recommend The Northman? Well, that is a hard one to nail down. If you have liked any of Robert Eggers’ previous work, well, then absolutely. If you like Norse Mythology, then also a big recommendation. For everyone else, I will say that this is like a revenge film and a historical epic that got freaky in Reykjavík, and that may or may not interest you. If you liked The Northman, I would recommend to you RRR.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Northman
Directed by – Robert Eggers
Written by – Sjón & Robert Eggers
Based on – The Legend of Amleth
Music by – Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough
Cinematography by – Jarin Blaschke
Edited by – Louise Ford
Production/Distribution Companies – Regency Enterprises, Perfect World Pictures, New Regency, Square Peg, Focus Features & Universal Pictures
Starring – Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Elliott Rose, Gustav Lindh, Oscar Novak, Phill Martin, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Björk, Olwen Fouéré, Kate Dickie, Ian Whyte, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Magne Osnes, Ralph Ineson, Doa Barney, Ian Gerard Whyte, Katie Pattinson, Murray McArthur & Ineta Sliuzaite
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 16; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R
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