Review: The Northman

Vikings (with the exception of a certain Marvel god of thunder) don’t tend to get the cinematic treatment, much less anything resembling accuracy or realism. Enter Robert Eggers’ The Northman, a bone-crunching, muddily-visceral and morally ambiguous tale that – quite honestly – is the sort of film we’re not used to seeing in the cinemas, with casts like this, at this scale anymore.

In AD 895, Viking king Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns home after a series of voyages and battles to his queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and young son Amleth. Rearrange the letters in Amleth’s name (for those struggling, take the last letter and put it at the front… well done), and you can pretty much predict what the rest of the story is. As a vicious berserker of an adult warrior, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) is reminded of a childhood pledge, and seeks vengeance and retribution upon his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang).

Interestingly, and I doubt many will be aware of what I’m about to say, but the reason Amleth is so similarly named to Hamlet is because this story (which is in historical record) happened, and was adapted by Shakespeare into his famous play. So not only is this a story we’re familiar with, but it’s based on Norse sagas and historical figures – and the film is made with a dedication (bordering on the mad) to unstinting realism and respect towards this civilisation and this era.

Eggers, who directs and co-wrote the film with Icelandic writer Sjon, is known for two other period movies made in the same highly realistic, tangible way (The Witch and The Lighthouse), and his very dedicated approach to historical cinema sets up The Northman in a really strong way. At the same time, his more independently-minded cinematic style is given the upgraded, blockbuster(ish) attention and stage it previously didn’t have, and this is where cinemagoers will either love it or hate it.

In our screening, I counted eight people who left – and that’s ridiculous, given this was a truly excellent, engrossing and brilliantly-made film. All I can surmise from this is that some people went in expecting something more akin to Gladiator, and… were not ready for how much less The Northman cares about sentiment, Hollywood stories or your feelings.

What Eggers and Sjon have crafted is a story dripping with nihilism, the frank worldview of the Vikings it portrays, and the very essence of the well-known story that they’re adapting. People are shit; life is, and certainly was, utter shit for people at this time; and guess what? It still is now. Cinema provides an escape, and I think that those who left weren’t really looking for the sort of experience they got here – their escapism wasn’t Eggers’ idea of escapism.

For me though, knowing (thanks to my partner) a lot more about how advanced, sophisticated and downright fascinating the Vikings were – and knowing ahead of time about the (A)mlet(H) connection to the famous play – I absolutely loved it. A film that doesn’t pander to your need for nice, staged in such an authentic way that you can practically smell the blood, shit and sweat, filled with top performances and stunning vistas? I love this stuff.

Eggers has a very considered way of filmmaking – rather than the thousand cuts most action or major cinema employs, he applies a single-camera, longer take approach to everything. As a result, the more stagey elements of this movie and story are enhanced, and given that all-important time to breath. The script’s more exposition-heavy or monologue/soliloquy approach to dialogue (people proclaim, in length, to others) not only references everyone’s favourite bard, but the knowing, almost sarcastic and bitter tone of the Norse sagas.

It speaks to a morality and a world that isn’t clouded by sentiment – Amleth’s quest is understandable, but the way he gets there (and what he does on the way) are absolutely amoral at times. Eggers delights in presenting to us (more in suggestive terms than outright exploitation) the sheer inhumanity of these times. Vikings were capable of great sophistication, and endure through to today in our culture (that Bluetooth tech on your phone was named after a Viking king, and his rune is the Bluetooth symbol); at the same time, they reaved and raided, raped and pillaged, and killed whoever got in their way.

As such, our hero is compromised; the people he fights for aren’t exactly the people he remembered them to be as a child; the people he aims to kill aren’t the jet-black, irredeemable villains we’ve come to expect; and as such, you can’t expect everything to be tied up in a nice little bow to make you feel good. Accordingly, if you’re not a fan of implied or depicted violence, this is not the film for you: case in point, a man is literally headbutted to death.

But again, all of this comes back to Egger’s realistic vision: this isn’t a sanitised version of the past. It’s how civilisations have behaved time and time again throughout earlier history. Not to get too current-affairsy, but you can’t quibble with depictions of what we now call crimes against humanity when that shit is happening right now in Ukraine. An invading force subjugating an innocent population and doing what they want to them? Humanity, innit.

Returning to that theme of realism, I mentioned earlier how you can practically smell this film. Eggers and his crew filmed in Ireland and Iceland, built sets in the way the buildings would have been constructed with the materials people would have used. It all feels convincing, specific and exacting, and you genuinely feel ingratiated into the sense of place and culture (especially the weather: my GOD, the weather).

Editor Louise Ford, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, are a huge part of why this hits home and why the film itself feels so singular and impressive. Blaschke shoots still, steady, long takes of meticulously-staged action that feels real – and as such, we’re party to the violence and mayhem that’s undertaken. We can’t look away. Ford’s editing makes us witness to what happens, from the more intimate scenes of introspection and love, to fantastical visions of Valhalla and Valkyries, and to the inevitable violence.

I’d say this also extends to the costuming (animal furs, tunics, jewellery and the like), and most notably the music, with Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough employing pounding drums throughout to increase that sense of movement, action and war. Period-authentic sounds from woodwinds and (slightly off-tune) strings only help ingratiate us into the era, and at times the score feels as wild and unhinged or as epic and dramatic as the film demands.

That’s another point of interest for the sake of realism and the film’s themes: like many historical movies (like Gladiator in fact), this film makes much of the symbolism and religion of the cultures at the time, whether it be the power of cursed or blessed weapons, the importance of ravens or nature in general, and the belief in an afterlife. It’s great that the film immerses you in this, because that’s how people lived it – and in contrast to now, these gods (plural) were as amoral as the people who believed in them.

Getting away from the deeper messages of this movie, on an entertainment basis your mileage may vary. It can feel slow(ish) at points, but Eggers and Sjon’s propulsive screenplay mean that the beats you expect it to hit come quickly, and you’re immersed in the elements that you know are to come, as well as surprised by some you don’t expect.

You need one hell of a presence to anchor a film like this, and Alexander Skarsgard finally (in my opinion) matches a movie to his stature and his (underrated) acting abilities. As a giant, blonde Swede, he seems made for a Viking movie (and indeed had dreamed of starring in one), and he utilises both his physical attributes and ability and his understated, but volatile, performance together very well.

Having seen him so often play the charismatic but psychotic, dangerous figure, it’s good to see him here showing his range. Amleth is emotionally-stunted (for obvious reasons), but slowly thaws and matures as the seemingly straightforward task he sets himself becomes more complicated and he engages with others. His chemistry with Kidman (they’ve now played husband and wife AND mother and son!) is gripping, while with Anya Taylor-Joy he gets to portray a more human, softer side to the bear-like warrior.

Without him, I don’t think this film would have worked at all. You can tell he put everything into it, and he is clearly in every fight scene, and throwing every punch. This only enhances the film’s immersive nature, and I honestly think it’s a really underrated but excellent performance.

Kidman is probably better here than in anything I’ve seen her in for a long time, too – Gudrun is a complex, manipulative and engrossing figure, and while some have knocked her attempt at a Scandinavian accent (the film doesn’t go so immersive as to provide us with subtitled Old Norse dialogue), I was taken with how she was able to change the temperature and mood of any scene in a split second – one particular scene here, where plots twist and turn, is brutal and shocking, and she’s right at the heart of it.

The third element of the film’s main quartet, Claes Bang (who you may have seen as Dracula in the BBC adaptation a couple of years ago), is also top casting. The Danish actor transforms (thanks to long hair and a beard) into the haunted, power-hungry and paranoid Fjolnir, shifting mood and tone as quickly as his burdened king senses the winds change. He provides some of the film’s more arresting images of emotional outburst, and I can see him turning up in a lot more thanks to this role.

Last but certainly not least, Anya Taylor-Joy enhances her already-stratospheric profile as the excellently-named Olga of the Birch Forest. The British actress doesn’t so much smoulder as burn through the screen with thinly-veiled rage as a Slavic “witch” prisoner determined to get revenge on her captors, with whoever or whatever she can find. She’s in no way the vulnerable woman (from the first moment we see her), and she’s more than a match for Amleth, let alone anyone else.

It’s sort of “best-of-the-rest” for the other performers. Ethan Hawke is not in the film too much, but the veteran actor is wholly believable as a jaded, tired king trying his best to hand down what he can to his son. Fjolnir’s son Thorir, played by Gustav Lindh, is exactly the sort of odious, snivelling and weak piece of shit king’s son archetype we’ve come to know well, but the actor articulates the haughtiness and sociopathic nature of such a role very well.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning an unhinged cameo from Willem Dafoe as the fool Heimir, who in life and death enters the story in some of its more mystical and nutty scenes – there’s no better actor to play happily deranged than Defoe, who’s clearly loving every second. The same goes for Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson’s memorable appearance as the “He-Witch”, all filthy rags and cave-dwelling insanity. Notably, famous singer Bjork makes a memorable appearance as a no-eyed, unnerving seer who lectures and steers Amleth toward his destiny – she leaves quite an impact.

I’m sure that you’ve read enough to know two things here: that I absolutely adored this exceptional film, and that you’ll either hate it or love it based on that! It’s not for everyone, but if the idiots leaving this film showed me anything, it’s that you should read reviews if you don’t know what you’re expecting, and you should prepare yourself for the possibility that (GASP!) a film might not be what you think it is before you spend money on it.

For me though: I’d love to see this approach to Ancient Greece, the Romans – you name it. If The Northman signals a mini-trend towards authentic, down-and-dirty ancient civilisation cinema, I’ll be there.

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