By Elias Savada.
If you’re not having your senses bludgeoned by The Northman, you’ll admire all the historical detail and period madness. Fire and brimstone meet rot and decay, yet there’s ambition afoot here.”
The dark intensity that has imbued director-writer Robert Eggers first two directorial features has matured with the size of his budget. Those earlier, earthy, arthouse horror tales — The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2018) — built up his auteur reputation for severe production design, period detail, uneasy tension, and compelling storytelling. Yet they are mere pawns on his cinematic chessboard for the $90 million The Northman (vs. $4 and $11 million for his first two films). This Viking saga like no other will test whether his terrifying and violent visionary— and now quite expensive — work will be accepted by a wider, mainstream audience. It should be. You may turn away from the brutal 10th century blood-letting, but this is one extremely satisfying film.
This fiercely proud and brawny Hamlet prequel, with a script by Eggers and Icelandic novelist/poet Sjón, makes more than a few allusions to the Shakespeare piece, starting with an anagram for the main character’s name. Amleth is a young prince when his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is decapitated by the boy’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) is taken away. Two decades after the 10-year-old boy (Oscar Novak) witnessed this horrifying event, he has morphed into a monster of a man (Alexander Skarsgård, also a producer on this project), filled with fiery revenge. His bloodlust fostered by years he has spent with a gang of Viking berserkers pillaging riverside villages in Eastern Europe, his fate turns after a meetup with a Slav Witch (Björk, ever so briefly), and news that his uncle is now a ruthless fallen-from-grace farmer in a very small piece of Iceland. He heads to that remote landscape, masquerading as a hunched-over slave with vacant eyes, his demeanor hiding his inner drive from all but Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, who earned her first credited role as the star of Eggers’ debut feature), a slave woman with whom he forms a destiny-tinged bond. The visceral family reunion turns deceptively bold and mercilessly blood-spattered as Amleth selectively removes all those in his path to self-seeking righteousness. It’s a bumpy, bloody ride.
The filmmaker’s laborious work ethic spanned two weather-plagued and covid-affected years — a huge jump from the 25- and 35-day shoots on which he built his distinctive reputation. Such detail-oriented work may require multiple viewings to fully appreciate the film’s grim, muddy look. The director reunited with his production designer (Craig Lathrop, putting a good face on squalid), cinematographer (Jarin Blachke, lover of the long shot and hater of the hand-held), costume designer (Linda Muir, offering a primitive Scandinavian look – at least when the anti-hero isn’t baring his muscular chest), and editor (Louise Ford, responsible for the assured pacing, pushing the action into your lap, and a providing a good deal of the squirming you experience). Making a bold addition to Eggers’ realm are Maralyn Sherman (hair and makeup design) and composers Robin Carolan (a frequent Björk collaborator) and Sebastian Gainsborough, contributing to the film’s harsh, unsettling sound design.
All technical aspects are top notch and the script benefits from Sjón’s poetic air, suffusing the film’s supernatural aspects and some of the familial intrigue. The acting is terrific as well. While Hawke’s brief showing isn’t much (go watch him in Disney+’s’ Moon Knight!), and Willem Dafoe (half of The Lighthouse‘s two-handed cast) makes his usual creepiness effectively felt as a holy man/court jester, Skarsgård takes center stage here and holds nothing back. Lord knows what mindset he took to prepare for this violence-infused role, but it’s masterful.
Not sure anyone’s making the bloodline connection between the film and True Blood, the HBO vampire series that propelled the Swedish Skarsgård to fame, but his character there was called Eric Northman. Perhaps there’s a distant relationship that some genealogist can unearth? And Kidman, of course, played the actor’s wife in the cable company’s Big Little Lies. Forget Wordle, you should play six degrees of separation.
Most of the film is set in Iceland, but the pandemic forced the filmmakers to move most of the shoot to Northern Ireland. If there’s a sense of déjà vu for Game of Thrones, that’s because the film and the series both filmed in the same countryside locations.
If you’re not having your senses bludgeoned by The Northman, you’ll admire all the historical detail and period madness. Fire and brimstone meet rot and decay, yet here’s ambition afoot here. Eggers deserves a great deal of the credit for crafting another startling, big screen vision.