In the ninth century, Norse warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is propelled by the Fates to seek vengeance on his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) for the childhood murder of his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and imprisonment of his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). Disguising himself as a slave to get close to his target, Amleth finds aid on his quest from Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the spirit of his father’s Fool Heimir (Willem DaFoe), but his desire to avenge his father may not be as pure a mission as he thinks it is.
Allow me to use a very Irish phrase to describe my reaction to The Northman: “notions”. This is a piece of art that is very simple when you get right down to it: it’s a revenge film, whose basic plot beats are not all that far removed from things like John Wick, Death Wish or any number of other films and TV shows where a young white male grows up looking to kill the people who murdered his father/family/dog. Only Robert Eggers has notions about what he is making, attempting to imbue it with a sense of the mystical, the ethereal, as something more than “My name is Amleth, you killed my father, prepare to die” (ironically Amleth actually does have a mantra that sounds a bit like this). But the bells and whistles are just that, whether it’s Bjork as a binder of fates, some Valkyries carrying people around or recurring looks at an Yggdrasill with human leaves.
So much of The Northman is easy to foresee, that I felt at times that all it was missing was the old quote about how when seeking revenge you should first dig two graves. I feel I do not exaggerate when I say a good half-hour of The Northman could be shaved off and all that is necessary to tell the story could still be found. Instead Eggers indulges himself in a 150 minute epic attempting to make this shallow story into something far more than it is, and that is regrettable. Going for the weird and fantastical repeatedly, often at the expense of pacing and characterisation, the film also errs in its depiction of Amleth, who wants revenge for revenge’s sake and whose larger goals amount to a vague acceptance of a nebulous concept of “fate”. The Northman will be hard to forget, but it is not the kind of film that I would ever feel the need to see again.
I will say this though: the idea of a character seeking revenge finding himself pondering whether he is on a moral course is followed through well here, most critically in a scene between Skarsgård and Kidman at the top of the third act. That’s about the only time that The Northman grabbed a hold of me more than any other historical revenge flick, with the idea of a cyclical saga of revenge and toxic masculinity that Amleth has a chance to break out of, if he has the courage to actually take that course. I won’t spoil his decision, other than to say that Eggers charts a surprising middle course that, while it could have been profoundly unsatisfying, actually worked rather well.
It’s acted well too, in fairness. Skarsgård is good enough at his craft that I do feel he should have broken through to the top tier of the profession before now, and The Northman certainly aids his cause. His Amleth has to be both a ferocious warrior but also have a tender side, as a man who has seen his life driven by violent emotions when he would rather leave them behind: it would seem trite to have a scene where Amleth alone seems regretful in the wake of a town pillaging, but Skarsgård actually makes it work. He’s matched by most of those around him; Taylor-Joy excels as Olga, making her more than just a love interest, instead a sort of mix between ethereal being and hard-as-nails confidante; Hawke is enjoyable in his brief, but scene-stealing, turn as Amleth’s soon-to-be-murdered father; DaFoe is having a ball as the deranged Fool who doesn’t let death stop him from giving Amleth advice; and Kidman plays a proto-Gertrude with all of the moral ambiguity and warped sensibilities that you would expect.
And Eggers does know how to direct a movie. The Northman carries plenty of the kind of rural darkness that his The Witch had, enough that at times the film starts to seem more like a macabre horror than anything else, and perhaps it would have been a better experience if it had leaned into that feeling more. There are plenty of interesting sequences worthy of praise, not least a one shot pan through the horrific sacking of a small village, or an attempt to recreate the Norse game of Knattleikr, which Irish audiences will naturally equate to the similar sport of hurling. It’s when Eggers goes for the mystical, with repeated looks at a stylised Yggdrasill, a ride with a Valkyrie or a bizarre mid-point fight with a zombie warrior, that he starts to lose me. Similarly, the film’s apparently slavish devotion to accurately recreate life in the ninth century is admirable, but there are some touches here, like those relating to religious ceremonies or the daily life of not especially important people, that will fly over the heads of most and occasionally seem more like a crutch than a worthwhile pursuit. The visual style will draw understandable comparisons to The Green Knight, but I found that film much more engaging, maybe because it wasn’t so hung up on superfluous details or cinematography that could be described as overly-indulgent at times.
The film’s violence is undoubtedly one of its key traits, and Eggers does not shirk from a visual showcase of that. This is a Norse saga after all, and they tend too be big on decapitations and eviscerations. There are times when it can all get a bit much – I read an interview from Eggers recently where even he admitted there was at least one shot of guts falling out of someone that he didn’t feel was justified – but for the most part violence is used appropriately. That said, there are some odd decisions, such as in how Eggers only implies sexual violence – and a great deal of that – without ever showing it directly, but a person getting their brains bashed out of their skull is apparently more than fair game: I suspect this is a reflection of Norse sagas reluctance to get into the nitty-gritty of what pillaging actually means, but if so then it is strange that the director is content to show just about everything but, especially when a recurring plot point revolves around women’s efforts to have agency in such stories in response to sexual violence. Actual fight scenes tend to be quick, and to the point: even the film’s lava-strewn finale doesn’t wear out its welcome.
I will close by noting, as many have, the fact that the Norse story The Northman is based on was one of the major inspirations for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Well sir, I know Hamlet. I’ve read Hamlet, studied Hamlet, seen Hamlet performed on stage, small screen and big. And this film, sir, is no Hamlet. Shakespeare took what he needed and then crafted something singularly spell-binding out of it: The Northman is just an outline of a better story in response. It redeems itself with a good cast and decent visuals, but to call it “a modern-day Gladiator” as I have seen said, is hyperbole in the extreme. It’s alright. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).