The Northman, 2022.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Gustav Lindh, and Björk.
A young Viking prince embarks on an epic quest to avenge his father’s death.
Robert Eggers broke into the Hollywood scene in 2015 with his period horror flick The Witch. The genre defining piece not only launched the career of the uber talented Anya Taylor-Joy but also cemented Eggers as a talented auteur we should keep an eye out for. In 2019, Eggers once again embraced his horror roots with the atmospheric chiller The Lighthouse, which featured a duet of ferocious performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Shortly after its release, Eggers announced that for his next project, he’d be directing an epic Viking revenge saga inspired by ancient Norse mythology. The inception of The Northman, however, took place a few years prior during one of Eggers’ trips to Iceland, which lent an opportunity to meet Björk and Icelandic poet Sjón. Skarsgård too had previously expressed interest in crafting an Old Norse saga with Eggers and thus, the ingredients for the film unexpectedly came together. Eggers and Sjón based their screenplay on the legend of Amleth written by 12th Century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and with a $65 million budget principal photography commenced at Northern Ireland with its stacked ensemble cast on August 2020.
If one were to simply describe Eggers’ The Northman, you could say that it’s the love child of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. The explicit violence, bleak atmosphere, exquisite imagery and historically-accurate setting are all stunning parallels that both Refn’s Viking tale and The Northman share. But that’s not to say that Eggers’ effort is subpar, no sir. The brutal nature of the Norseman’s savage world is brought to life in exquisite and barbaric detail, sans compromise, by the talented young director. This is as immersive a theatrical experience as they come. Starting off his career with low-budget affairs, it must be said that, Eggers’ transition to the big leagues is simply flawless. That chap is a stickler for detail, as evidenced by his work on The Witch and The Lighthouse, but the larger budget has afforded him the unenviable opportunity to realise his desired vision for The Northman unhindered.
With two fiercely original entries already under his belt, what Eggers has accomplished here certainly doesn’t come as a surprise for anyone. This is a Robert Eggers film through and through, and his signature style is evident in every mood-oozing frame of the movie. This is of course is no happy accident. Eggers worked closely with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who nabbed an Academy award nomination for his work on The Lighthouse, in crafting the specific look and tone needed for The Northman. There is a strange, ethereal patina imbued to every shot, that makes even the most violent, blood-soaked scene stunning to behold. This is a world perpetually battered by the primal elements; drenched from rain, smothered by snow and warmed through fire. A place of divine beauty and unrestrained barbarism. And the degree of tactility Blaschke captures through his lens is otherworldly. Still, his hauntingly monochromic cinematography for The Lighthouse remains my clear favourite. The score is another integral component of this film. Crafted by UK based electronic artists Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan, the duo’s evocative music – replete with archaic instrumentations and otherworldly sounds – take the listener on its own surreal trip; bowel-shuddering, nightmare inducing journey into the heart of darkness.
Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård has stepped up his game the past few years, seeking edgier character driven roles while trying to shed the teen heartthrob True Blood persona which brought him recognition in the first place. His performance as an abusive husband in David E. Kelley’s HBO television drama series Big Little Lies earned Skarsgård numerous accolades and this year we see him take on the role of a vengeance fueled, blood-crazed Norseman. It isn’t a nuanced performance per se, but a straightforward one which more than adequately gets the job done. He also cuts quite the imposing figure as a towering hulk of muscle and rage, decimating everything in his path. The guy’s a proverbial force of nature and then some. Anya Taylor-Joy who got her big break on The Witch, returns to work on Eggers’ latest effort, delivering quite the mercurial turn as Olga the Slavic sorceress. She is compassionate and kind as Amleth’s lover, but calculating, vicious and deeply distrusting with others. She is an individual who’d do whatever it takes to survive. Claes Bang who gained international recognition by starring as Count Dracula in the 2020 BBC/Netflix series Dracula plays Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir. Bang not only turns in an incredibly nuanced performance but also matches Skarsgård’s formidable physicality with his own. Nicole Kidman has the least screentime in The Northman but goddamn if she doesn’t bring in her A-game when she needs to.
The Northman is a compelling revenge drama, of that there is no doubt. There’s enough internecine bloodletting, unexpected revelations, gripping performances and evocative imagery to keep you invested throughout. But what makes it extra-special is that it also offers a fleeting, uncompromising glimpse of an ancient civilization and a lost culture that many have now forgotten through the passage of time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.