‘The Northman’ review: An epic tale of vikings, valour and vengeance

I don’t think the word ‘Viking’ is uttered once in the entirety of The Northman. This appropriately epitomises the authentic Norse feel of the film, as you don’t always need words to convey a feeling in filmmaking. Director Robert Eggers absorbs us in a brutal yet ancient world which runs red with the blood of fathers and sons, overseen by the Norse all-father God Odin. In typical Eggers style, the film blends the real world with the supernatural, using tight cinematography and ominous lighting to create an other-worldly feel to a period of real history. Eggers and Icelandic writer Sjón tell a tale which runs a thin line between valour and vengeance, and how following one’s fate isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. In a world filled with axes, gods, and the threads of fate, good and evil doesn’t exist; it is simply whoever plunges the sword in first.

The Northman follows Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he sets off on a path to avenge the death of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). The plot is based on the medieval Scandinavian legend which inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is very evident in the film’s story and performances. Every member of the cast give Shakespearean-esque performances, expressing raw emotion when needed and blending English with ancient Nordic tongues, which only adds to the other-worldly feel. Skarsgård gives a furious yet empathetic performance as Amleth; providing us with the raw, animalistic rage of a vengeful Viking, but also showing us he’s not completely unrelenting or heartless in the right moments. Anya Taylor-Joy is also a highlight, portraying Amleth’s love interest and Slavic sorceress Olga with supernatural charm, proving yet again her versatility in historical roles. Willem Dafoe was also a pleasant surprise to the cast, playing King Aurvandill’s fool in what would quite possibly be Dafoe’s ideal career if he lived in a Viking world. Ethan Hawke and Claes Bang’s performances as King Aurvandil and Fjölnir respectively also add to the authenticity of the world, and give modern day audiences an idea of how much Vikings valued bloodlines and vengeance.

The Northman also gave us with what is probably my favourite film score of 2022 so far. First-time film composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough experimented with ancient instruments to perfectly capture the scale of the world Amleth journeys through. From the resounding horns expressing the grandeur of Viking Norway and Iceland, to the atonal, sporadic strings conveying that unnerving atmosphere which has become so synonymous with Eggers’ supernatural style. Along with the soundtrack, the immense production design of the film helps capture the essence of the time period. The beautiful Icelandic landscapes make for some stunning cinematography, and the impeccably unclean and rough costume design give us sense of historical authenticity which I have the upmost appreciation for in these types of films. There’s even some sequences of what can only be described as recreations of traditional Viking rituals. Their ridiculousness by today’s standards is compensated by the fact that not many films would go that far in capturing the authenticity of the time. Only in a film like The Northman could a scene of a group of filthy Norse men dancing around a fire pretending to be wolves be so satisfying. The action sequences are slick and bloody as they should be, often consisting of satisfyingly long takes but never too gratuitous. There’s even a game of ‘Knattleikr’ which is like Viking hockey except much more brutal and appropriately violent as it would’ve been back then. As for the film’s supernatural elements, to the casual viewer they may seem slightly jarring at first, but similarly to Eggers’ other films, it elevates the genre just enough to make it unique and interesting. Eggers adds a supernatural element to his films to give modern day audiences a taste of the folklore of the time, and what makes it so effective is how realistically it’s portrayed. It’s never too much that it makes the world feel unrealistic, but never too little that it makes it unbelievable.

The Northman is one of those historical films that transports us back to a time in our world, but a time so long ago that it feels like a different world. It tells a revenge story not unlike others, but one fuelled by Viking rage and sprinkled with Norse mythology. It shows us that even in Viking times, our deeds aren’t always as simple as good and evil, but are better described as a matter of perspective. Amleth is presented as the protagonist, but commits violent atrocities for the sake of valour for his bloodline. Fjölnir is presented as the antagonist, but has moments of genuine sympathy and compassion for those around him. It is a story much like Shakespeare’s tales of old, that of a conflict between compassion for those you love and vengeance for those you hate, and how far one is willing to go to pursue one or the other. The film is long, dark and bloody, so it may not be for everyone, but those who are willing to divulge into some visceral Norse history for two and a half hours may find something special. The historical authenticity and brutal nature of The Northman, topped with the supernatural sprinkles of Norse mythology, makes it undoubtedly my favourite Robert Eggers film so far. It makes me want to pick up and axe and angrily chop up some wood (not bodies) whilst howling like Fenrir the Norse wolf. I’m very much looking forward to the next time period Eggers decides to tackle in a film. I have no doubt he has enough potential to make even the 1990s seem supernatural yet retain their realism. Here’s to a spooky yet sparkly take on PCs and the World Wide Web. Skal!


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