Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, and Anya Taylor-Joy, The Northman is the latest film by Robert Eggers, following his previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse. The Northman follows Viking prince Amleth (Skarsgard) embarking on a quest to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang).
Before you say anything, yes–it is essentially Hamlet, or if you would prefer, The Lion King. Unlike Shakespeare and Disney’s takes on the familiar legend, Eggers and co-screenwriter and Icelandic author Sjón take The Northman back to its Old Norse roots, which combines Icelandic dialogue with the savagery of the Viking Age. With some already touting this as ‘this generation’s Gladiator‘, can The Northman revive the genre of epic revenge film?
Set in the North Atlantic, young Amleth witnesses Fjölnir murder his father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and ravage his village while capturing his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Forced to leave for his own safety, he swears by a simple mantra: ‘I will avenge you Father. I will save you Mother. I will kill you Fjölnir’ – creating a vendetta that continues into adulthood. Growing up to become a hardened warrior, Amleth seeks a chance to avenge his loved ones.
Despite the initial upset that Skarsgård’s character is not called Eric (referring to his True Blood character Eric Northman, who, coincidentally, had a similar vendetta against his father’s murderer), The Northman presents itself as a graphically complex film with an overly simplistic plot.
The sole focus of the plot is Amleth’s revenge, whose trauma and harsh upbringing have created a cold-hearted protagonist. With a protagonist resistant to a life and meaning bar his vendetta, the narrative prevents other characters from contributing to not only his emotional development but also their own. With his father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) being the sole point of affection as a child, it seems that Amleth’s vengeful fate is sealed when he witnesses his murder.
As a result, he prevents himself from becoming close to anyone and nobody can ‘rescue’ him from his dark intentions, despite Amleth’s love interest Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Gudrún unveiling chinks in his armor. With Amleth being so isolated from everyone, he does come across as a one-dimensional, unrelenting character, causing us to question whether more could have been done with him as a protagonist.
Its simplicity might make The Northman Eggers’ most accessible film to date, but it doesn’t stop it from being unrelentingly brutal. Its graphic and violent scenes of murder, decapitations (of both men and horses), and sacrifices are uncomfortable viewing for squeamish audiences but enhance the primal natures of its characters, with a village raid being an early yet memorable standout.
As Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s booming score fortifies The Northman’s foreboding tone, Eggers’ slow and unforgiving direction evokes a deep and disturbing calm around the chaos, with centered shots almost forcing audiences to experience each scene head-on. In addition, Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography makes the most of Iceland’s lush landscapes and copious amounts of firelight to add an unsettling sense of mystery and scale to the screenplay, which is driven by Skarsgård’s imposing and dominating performance.
One of the key things that add complexity to the plot is the handful of female characters, which not only includes Olga of the Birch Forest and Queen Gudrún but also The Seer (Björk), as they easily evoke reactions through their whispers, spells, and foresight.
The lovely Olga is an unassuming sorceress (hinting at a continuation of her breakthrough performance in The Witch) and Björk delivers a brief yet haunting performance as the Seer, both of whom tap into Amleth’s rage-riddled heart. Meanwhile, Kidman makes an impact as Gudrún, whose manipulation causes her son to second-guess his vendetta through harsh truths during an intimate yet disturbing scene.
Although the men easily lead the charge on the battlefield, the quietness and complexity of these women make them – in a way – more powerful than their male peers, while raising the subtle mysticism littered throughout the narrative.
At 137 minutes, The Northman occasionally feels dragged out as Amleth takes his time to wreak vengeance amid violent raids and occasional spiritual scenes that hint that there is more guiding him besides revenge. However, Eggers doesn’t compromise on the brutality and scale of his latest feature, creating a visually compelling and absorbing thriller. Combined with Skarsgård’s powerful performance, The Northman cements a welcome return to the cinematic historical epic.