Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers, Sjón
Production: New Regency Productions, Focus Features, Perfect World Pictures, Square Peg, Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Platforms: Theatrical Release (Reviewed)
Release Date: Out Now!
Before starting, I feel I should prelude this review by saying I am a huge fan of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (his first movie) but was much more lukewarm on his sophomore effort The Lighthouse. Therefore, I was unsure what to expect from the much larger scale of his third picture, The Northman. Sadly, despite undeniably impressive production, it fell a bit short of my hopes.
Under the vicious Viking wrapping, this is ultimately a quite straightforward revenge story centred around Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), who witnesses the murder of his father, capture of his mother, and the takeover of his home as a child. From here we skip to him as an adult, where he now the one doing the ransacking of homes (as we see viscerally depicted early on). He is, however, drawn back to his home, where he feels he has unfinished business.
The Northman leans heavily into the mythology revolving around Viking times, which is intriguing and (along with the sheer violence on show) pushes a lot of scenes towards the horror genre. However, whilst some of this might be necessary to establish tone and setting, quite a bit of it came across as gratuitous to me. Sometimes horrific scenes work better when they’re more subtle and left to the imagination (see: The Witch). Here, everything is very much on show, and it’s regularly an uneasy watch.
Subsequently, I found it hard to care too strongly about Prince Amleth, as he is behind much of these violent scenes, performing awful acts. This isn’t me saying we always have to root for the main character, but I think The Northman especially suffers because of how plot-heavy it is. Little time is spent on allowing the audience to understand Prince Amleth, or see him develop past a motive to get revenge. There isn’t really the moral conflict of say, Joker (2019). This film constantly reminded me of The Revenant, which I found to have very similar issues.
There’s still a lot to admire about The Northman, though. Cinematography and location design are staggering and varied, creating a believably barbaric world; the one-takes in this, particularly, are horrifically beautiful. The soundtrack, too, has a distinct, echoing force to it that compliments the visuals brilliantly, keeping you consistently on edge.
Also, the cast are fantastic at embodying these unrelenting characters, with Nicole Kidman being my surprise standout as Queen Gudrún. It’s no secret that I’m a huge Anya Taylor-Joy fan, and her presence is reliably magnetic here as Olga of the Birch Forest – but clearly underutilised, too. Her role is supplementary to that of Alexander Skarsgård, and had the feeling of untapped potential.
If we were comparing The Northman to Eggers’ other films, then I’m much more drawn to the concise, creepy subtlety of The Witch, and I’d like to see Eggers go back towards that end of the scale. With The Northman, I got the sense of style over substance – though it’s important to note that said style is mightily, and brutally, impressive.