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Review: The Northman

April 21, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

“I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

This is the mantra that Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) repeats throughout the Viking epic The Northman, a muscular piece of filmmaking from director Robert Eggers that is both his biggest creative swing and possibly his best film yet.

Eggers entered onto the scene with The Witch in 2015, an eery “New England Folktale” that put Anya Taylor-Joy on the map, helped kickoff the “elevated horror” craze, and cemented him as a filmmaker to watch. He followed it up with The Lighthouse in 2019, a black-and-white two-hander between Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe that saw both men going crazy while trapped in the titular phallic structure.

Having already nailed both his debut and sophomore features, there was a lot riding on The Northman to succeed in terms of advancing his career to the next level. With a reported price tag of ninety million dollars attached to it, this is Eggers’ “biggest” project yet, and it’s a grimy historical epic filled with brutal violence that seems destined to polarize audiences in a similar way to David Lowery’s The Green Knight, making it hardly a “safe” investment for Focus Features, the studio behind it.

And the fact that Eggers pulls it off, without sacrificing the voice that made his previous films so unique, is what makes The Northman such a towering achievement. It not only continues his upward trajectory, but also proves that he can do a big Viking action epic just as well as a two person chamber drama freakout like The Lighthouse, reinvigorating the genre in a way that feels fresh and exciting. This is immersive cinema, taking us back to around the 10th century when the story takes place.

The father that Amleth is avenging is King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke); the mother that he is trying to save is Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman); and the Fjölnir that he has vowed to kill is his uncle (Claes Bang), who beheads his own brother to steal his place on the throne. The film opens in the year 895, with Amleth as a young boy (played by Oscar Novak).

Amleth witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle, but escapes on a boat across the open sea. He grows up in exile amongst a band of Vikings who raid and pillage local villages, until he is stirred by a vision that his time has come to seek vengeance against his uncle. He disguises himself as a slave to return to Iceland, where Fjölnir has taken up with Amleth’s mother.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because The Northman is based on the legend of Amleth, a story that dates back centuries and inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and, in turn, Disney’s The Lion King, but I digress). These grand themes of fathers and sons, seeking vengeance, family ties, and vying for power make it a timeless tale. If the film’s narrative feels fairly straight-forward, it works as a lean and primal story that has been adapted for the screen with fervent power by Eggers and Icelandic writer Sjón, who co-wrote the screenplay.

The whole cast does strong work, starting with a bulked up Skarsgård who brings primal rage to his portrayal of Amleth. While she is very much in a supporting role, Kidman also leaves her mark, with one incredible scene in particular that comes late in the film but serves as a showstopper. Eggers also gives key roles to the stars of his previous two films. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a stirring performance as Slavic slave and possible sorceress Olga; and Willem Dafoe has a brief but memorable appearance as Heimer the Fool, including a riveting early scene involving visions facilitated by hallucinogens.

It’s a historical drama that plays out somewhat as fever dream, with both an ethereal and visceral quality to it that provides an immersive experience for the viewer. One of the things that The Northman does so well is to bring us into this world and make us feel like a part of it, with the stunning cinematography by Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse, The Witch) capturing both the griminess of the time and the misty, otherworldly beauty of the Nordic landscapes. It’s really good stuff, and presuming he doesn’t mess up on his fourth feature, Eggers is already well on his way to having one of the greatest runs by a director.

The Northman opens in theatres on April 22nd. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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