Robert Eggers’ new film “The Northman” attempts to push us into its strikingly brutal and barbaric world of Vikings in the Northern Europe of the 8th century. This is surely not a pleasant thing to watch at all, but it grabs your attention right from the beginning via its palpable mood and details, and you will admire its technical aspects even though you sometimes find yourself observing the story and characters from the distance.
While it is based on an old medieval Scandinavian legend about a figure named Amleth, the story will instantly remind you of William Shakespeare’s classic play “Hamlet”, which was actually inspired by that legend as reflected by its anagrammatic title. Not long after returning to his little island kingdom with his soldiers and newly captured slaves to be sold, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ehtan Hawke) embarks on preparing his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak) for succeeding him someday, but, not long after having Amleth go through a hallucinogenic ritual along with him, he is ambushed and then murdered by his half-brother Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang). While Amleth manages to escape alone, Fjölnir quickly takes the control of the kingdom, and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) subsequently becomes his wife.
Several years later, Amleth, now played by Alexander Skarsgård, is now a big and fearsome warrior still raging for what happened to his father. As he and his fellow Viking warriors, who are as fierce and feral as him, attack a small Slavic village, the movie gives us a stunning long-take sequence full of cruelty and savagery, and we are more chilled by Amleth’s callous detachment to the equally horrible aftermath of the attack.
And then something happens to Amleth during the following night. He comes across a mythical entity played by Björk, and this entity tells him about his destiny toward the vengeance for his dead father in addition to what will happen at the end of his quest for vengeance. Although he later hears that Fjölnir recently lost his kingdom and then fled to Iceland along with his family and clan, that does not affect Amleth’s determination at all, and he soon starts a long journey across the sea while disguising himself as one of those Slavic slaves to be taken to Fjölnir’s area in Iceland.
While Amleth is taken to Fjölnir’s area as planned, we also see how things are not so good for Fjölnir and others around him. Without any hope for regaining his lost kingdom, Fjölnir and his men have no choice but to deal with the harsh environment surrounding them day by day, and they certainly need more slaves to work for them, though they are going to sell most of slaves as usual.
As Amleth works on his revenge plot step by step, the movie sometimes catches us off guard with a series of eerie scenes full of brooding qualities including his spooky encounter with a shaman. Regardless of whether these creepy moments are real or not, they contribute a lot to the moody atmosphere surrounding the characters, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who was Oscar-nominated for Eggers’ previous film “The Lighthouse” (2019), did a superlative job of imbuing the screen with the gray sense of dread and desperation. We already know what will eventually happen in one way or another, and we can also feel that its main characters will never escape from their destiny no matter how much they try.
I appreciate the excellent technical efforts from Eggers and his crew members, but I also feel some distance from its story and characters for several reasons. Although I understand how much it is determined to push Eggers’ artistic vision to the extreme, the movie often seems more interested in shocking and repulsing us with violence and grime, and it is also a bit difficult for me to care about many of its main characters including Amleth. While they show some human aspects at times, they are still more or less than broad archetype characters simply following their rather simple nature and fate, and that sometimes makes the film feel as detached as your average nature documentary about those wild beasts.
At least, the main cast members are quite committed while playing their roles as straight as possible. Looking intense and beefy as required, Alexander Skarsgård firmly holds the ground with his darkly electrifying presence, and several notable performers around him have each own fun with their more colorful characters. While Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe are effective during their brief appearances, Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman have some juicy moments to be savored, and Kidman, who incidentally appeared along with Skarsgård in TV drama series “Big Little Lies”, is particularly terrific when her character finally confronts Amleth later in the story. As a Slavic slave girl who happens to be associated with Amleth, Anya Taylor-Joy, who has steadily advanced since her breakthrough performance in Eggers’ first feature film “The Witch” (2015), provides some warmth to the story while never compromising her strong-willed character.
On the whole, “The Northman” is often impressive thanks to Eggers’ dexterous handling of mood, story, and performance, but I just observed and admired its good aspects without fully emotionally involved in it. Although it does not surpass what was demonstrated in “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”, the movie still reminds us that Eggers is indeed a talented filmmaker with considerable ambition and distinctive artistic vision, and I will certainly look forward to beholding whatever will come from him next.