Review: THE NORTHMAN, Robert Eggers Gives You What You Want While Deep Diving Into Viking Lore
Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang and Anya Taylor-Joy star in Robert Eggers' new film.
Amleth adores his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven. You could even go as far as to say that the young boy worships him. No sooner has Aurvandil returned from another quest and he is betrayed and murdered by his brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless. Amleth flees their small kingdom into the North Atlantic, vowing to return one day and avenge his father and save his mother, Queen Gudrún. Amleth grows up to become a tower of a man, bringing ruin to villages around the Land of Rus with another clan. When he discovers the whereabouts of his uncle in Iceland he begins his own quest to get revenge for the murder of his father.
Robert Eggers continues to explore what fascinates him, the old worlds: the myths, legends, lore, religions and customs of cultures here before us. In his third film, The Northman, Eggers tells a story as old as time, set in the Viking Age. The story is well known. Probably too well known. A son witnesses the death of his father at the hands of his uncle and flees, to return later to exact his revenge and save his mother. We’ve all been there. Disappointing or not, in this story there are no real surprises as the story rolls out from beginning to end.
If we already know what’s going to happen, because we’ve seen it play out so many times before, then what makes The Northman worth watching? There have been no shortage of depictions of Viking culture over the years, recently with series that can be found at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Shows that both depict it and poke fun at it. Where The Northman rises above this all too familiar storyline is in the depiction of Viking culture, in the customs, then in the violence.
From the ‘huh, that makes sense’ to the ‘harrowing,’ it is Eggers’ attention to these details that makes The Northman worth a viewing. Seldom are we presented with depictions of the mystical and primal side of the Viking Age. An all too brief appearance by Björk as the Seeress shines some light on some of the gods, while rituals performed by Amleth with his father upon his return to the small kingdom, then with his adopted clan before they invade the village, are things we rarely see. You also really sense the reverence Eggers has towards these old faiths, a real sense of power and enablement from them in scenes as simple as a reveal of a totem of Odin to the glory and brilliance of going to Valhalla. We find all of this incredibly fascinating stuff and credit must be given to Icelandic writer Sjón, who cowrote The Northman with Eggers.
Then, what is more startling? The violence or how calmly it is carried out? One of these ‘huh, that makes sense’ moments is after Amleth and his clan invade a village. After a healthy helping of chopping and hacking Eggers cuts to them sitting down and catching a breather while other members ransack it. Wow. Yeah. That completely makes sense. You’ve scaled the walls, breached the perimeter, slashed, bashed and slayed everything in sight. You’re going to be a bit winded after all that.
After Amleth finds his uncle and gets himself into the village, he begins a campaign of terror, racking up everyone’s fears inside. There are some really wicked acts of violence here, as should be expected, but we’ve never seen anything like it in a Viking setting. In the Hannibal Lecter universe, yes, but not here. And then some of these other rituals, jeez. How pragmatically these are dealt with just gives these moments such ‘oomph’. Gaspers are gonna gasp.
But, you cannot help but sense a tug o’ war going on between what Eggers really appreciates here and what he has to do to keep a casual audience engaged while he pays his tributes. We really think what is driving Eggers here Is the old world religion and folklore, where he treats the old Norse gods with reverence and presents them with an astute attention to details hardly seen before. Meanwhile, while some of the action set pieces border on the spectacular, they feel fleeting and do not linger any longer than the point they have to make. Perhaps we’re just war mongers whose blood lust was satiated just enough. No, that’s not it. There are indeed some wow moments in it. But action-packed The Northman ain’t.
The success of The Northman hangs on the difference between what Eggers finds really fascinating and what audiences who come into a movie about Vikings are expecting and what they’re being told to expect in promotions leading up to its release. Eggers is going to attempt to broaden your thinking on Viking culture, that it was more than longboats, sacking and pillaging, He does give you a bunch of that, but he has more in store for you. Whether you are receptive to this or not is up to you.
The film opens April 22 in North America, only in movie theaters, via Universal Pictures Canada and Focus Features (U.S.). Visit the respective official sites for more information.
- Robert Eggers
- Robert Eggers
- Alexander Skarsgård
- Nicole Kidman
- Claes Bang