Film Review: ‘The Northman’

by Koom Kankesan


Robert Eggers‘ new film The Northman is a sort of return to roots in terms of period fidelity to his first film, The Witch, which made Eggers a name to watch out for. Eggers and Icelandic writer Sjon adapt the Scandanavian Viking-esque tale of Amleth, a Danish prince betrayed by his uncle, and the lengths he goes to in order to secure vengeance.

The Northman, Robert Eggers’ epic new period piece should make fans of his The Witch who subsequently hated his The Lighthouse a little happier. A return to the style and vintage of The Witch, The Northman adapts the story of Amleth, a Scandinavian legend about an orphaned prince who seeks revenge upon his uncle for killing his father. Sound familiar? It should because the legend is the basis of the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Eggers and Icelandic writer Sjon revamp the legend into something that veers towards the sword and sorcery vogue of the present day Game of Thrones era. Broad parallels could also be drawn to Conan The Barbarian or Gladiator.

Amleth is played by Alexander Skarsgård, all brawn and grim faced determination. His father is played by a similarly serious and imperious Ethan Hawke, cut down by the treachery of his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Nicole Kidman plays Amleth’s mother forced to wed Fjolnir (or so we think!). Rounding out the cast is Anya Taylor-Joy, having come of age in Eggers’ The Witch, and now fresh off a string of prominent TV appearances including the successful The Queen’s Gambit. Other solid actors, including Willem Dafoe as a craze eyed shaman, round out the cast.

It’s a stunt casting of sorts because serious, dramatic actors seem drawn to work with Eggers and why shouldn’t they? – visually, he is a stunning, flawless filmmaker full of visual bravado, a stylist who hearkens back to the bold poetry of auteur cinema. His research and period detail is monumental and impressive. He picks challenging projects that seem personally suited rather than playing to box appeal success. Aspiring actors who wish to be taken seriously hearken to directors with vision, almost out of keen desperation. It’s too bad then that the thrust of this tale and the action propel forward so forcefully, so epically, that the actors are given little breathing space, and even less room, to find much chemistry with each other.

That being said, the imagery is stunning. Though quite heavy with the digital treatment, Eggers knows how to work with darkness and light, how to use filters and framing to provide something that’s a feast for the eyes. I wish he’d taken more time to develop quieter scenes, eerier scenes (there is one really eerie scene involving Dafoe’s shaman and the young Amleth and his father braying like dogs) like those in The Witch. The power of The Witch is not in its epic-ness but in its strangeness, its beguiling craft and darkness and mystery. Ari Aster (who’s thanked at the very end of the credits, along with others) is similar when he’s at his best. The end of the film, where Amleth and Fjolnir square off amidst the shifting rivulets of magma surrounding a live volcano made a strong impression on me, as did many scenes involving battle and danger. Cinema like this is at its best when hypnotic and dreamlike. I just wish my heart was in my throat more of the time, or that I cared more about the characters.

Probably, those who have become devoted to Eggers’ work like I have will get something out of this film. Others will find it too long or will be disappointed if they except something like Game of Thrones or Odin forbid, the Marvel Thor movies. However, there are nice touches of history and magic that mine European traditions that North Americans might not be very familiar with and consequently find rewarding. The Brits, bless their souls, have been mining this lore for a very, very long time.

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