Have writer/ director Robert Eggers come out with a new film of any genre, and it will no doubt be on us film nerds’ most anticipated list of the year just from hearing the news instantly. Over the past few years, he’s been popular with his touch of what most have identified as “elevated horror.” 2016’s The Witch marked his debut that I didn’t make me part of the group who loved it, but I immensely enjoyed 2019’s The Lighthouse as the better period psychological thriller. This time, he’s moving from A24 to Focus Features to give the world his third feature, The Northman, his most expensive one yet, with a budget somewhere between $70-$90 million for a revenge flick with Vikings.
Beginning in 895 A.D., young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) lives with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), in the North Atlantic where they’re greeted by the return of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Amleth is destined to become the rightful heir to the throne until he watches his father beheaded by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), leading him to take over the kingdom and take his mother away make her his bride. The young prince escaped the clutches of his uncle by fleeing in a boat, swearing by a vow to avenge his father, save his Mother and kill you Fjölnir. Twenty years later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is raised by vicious Viking berserkers, which leads him to discover Fjölnir has lost his kingdom and fled to Iceland. Sneaking up on the slave ship as a stowaway where he meets a woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic sorceress, he poses as a slave to work at his farm to take his exact revenge and rescue his mother.
There was this mild hesitation with a visionary director like Eggers behind his biggest drama yet in his career. It would be the case if anybody wasn’t a fan of his previous films, this won’t be up there either. But this is a Viking movie we’re talking about here. The ones that have explored his lineage were probably Pathfinder and Valhalla Rising. The trailer and cast got me anxious enough, and I had a strong feeling this would be more in favor of his latest over his last two, which didn’t reach the heights of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. And I’m really thankful to say The Northman is worth seeing in theaters.
The worrying factor was hearing these brief rumors about possible studio interference that usually comes with small-time filmmakers working with big studios and a big budget. Maybe so, but I couldn’t tell from what I was watching when Eggers meticulously displays his vision of Norse mythology. It’s the most straightforward story with its lead character on a long, vengeful path of revenge. But it was an easy decision not to get it all complex and meander to sit through. Viking lore hasn’t been my stride of knowledge, and I probably didn’t learn about them in history class. That’s not to worry because Eggers allows this world to be as bleak and violet as possible to let us understand it was a time of anybody being unsafe from being killed or even burned alive inside your village. So I think it’s safe to assure barely any humans made it out of this area alive. After a while, I got used to it as I was intrigued with Amleth’s quest that anyone will get behind if they were in his mind, despite not being a total killer.
You can very much notice the film’s screenplay, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón (Lamb, Dancer in the Dark) had shades of Shakespeare in its themes of betrayal and violence, I thought in the first half. Everybody will see this as a great combination of Hamlet, The Revenant, and Gladiator all into one entertaining piece of work. But Eggers’ direction is in contention to be his most potent. He can still create an intense atmosphere to the period with the visible vibe of power and honor that doesn’t take anything away from the emotions within the 12th century. Reteaming his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke has both captured the most beautiful landscape that takes its time with long, steady shots and making the nighttime scenes so contrast that it pulled me in with what’s going to happen.
This is the performance from Alexander Skarsgard I’ve been waiting to see for years. For the longest time, he’s usually the actor that’s always the best part about bad movies (Battleship, The Legend of Tarzan). But this role of Amleth has him filing with rage and unrelenting fearless that doesn’t have him relatable when he’s a vicious warrior himself raiding villages. Not just with his physical appearance and has me one day wanting to have a body like his, you eventually feel what he’s going through, showing how much he’s come a long way in his career. Then we also have the lovely Anya Taylor-Joy (who broke out in her debut performance in The Witch) as the character Olga, the sorceress who helps Amlth that I’ll get lost in her eyes of hers. Nicole Kidman as Queen Guaran surprised me more than I thought. She doesn’t have much to do in the first two acts. Still, she goes out of her way to give this intimidating monologue in what will be an unpredictable turn that totally widens my eyes, elevating her performance to being great. I forgot that Kidman and Skarsgard were a married couple in Big Little Lies and oddly played mother and son here.
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe also gave memorable performances for the limited screen time. However, it’s understandable for Hawke seeing that the story calls for him to die early on.
Clocking at 136 minutes tends to slow down in a few spots, significantly rising towards the third act, but this wasn’t one of the times when a scene or two needed to get cut out despite having so much to take in. But you just become so engrossed in Eggers’ vision that’s incredible he can handle something on a bigger scale. I felt the moments of action that didn’t need to be terribly edited to give an idea of getting angry when it gets all raw and bloody that concludes so visually I couldn’t take my eyes away from its setting and stakes of how it will end. Having a long action sequence with no cuts is my bread and butter, which makes the scene where Amleth and his men this land I haven’t stopped thinking about days later. This might be one of the first of many this year I might grow to love it more since I’m very much interested in seeing how it plays out over a rewatching section. We’re looking at a decisive Viking movie to beat all that had or will come out in the future. And if it requires you not to take out your damn phone and let the glorious scope take your attention.
The Northman continues to show Robert Eggers’ talents as a filmmaker, giving us an exceptionally epic Viking drama. A revenge tale centered around Norse mythology that can be forgiven for how simple this is; its brutal action, striking visuals, and performances kept me on edge. But, of course, the bad side knows it won’t make back its budget. But don’t go into this expecting all action when that is just a tiny piece of what makes the film simply excellent, more enjoyable than The Green Knight and The Last Duel, respectively. I think this is my favorite of the three movies he has released.
The Northman is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 136 Minutes. Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity. Studio: Focus Features