The final poster released for The Northman may have put some of you on edge, with its blockbuster stylings and popcorn-selling tactics of throwing every single actor in the movie on there. It positioned Alexander Skarsgård as you might see Thanos, Anya Taylor-Joy with arms spread as Iron Man, and looked nothing like you’d expect from a Robert Eggers movie.
Well, don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a movie by a poster dreamed up in focus groups. The Northman is vintage Eggers, landing perfectly in the sweet spot between The Witch and The Lighthouse. It picks up some of the indulgences of both, and brings a few dalliances of its own, but it also offers a refinement on Egger’s style and will hopefully provide a benchmark for a director whose best years still seem to be in front of him.
Much like The Witch and The Lighthouse, The Northman is a simple story told so strangely you cannot help but be compelled by it. When Amleth is a boy he sees his father murdered by his uncle, flees for his life, and returns as a man to seek revenge. Your ear will mistake ‘Amleth’ as ‘Hamlet’ a few times throughout, likely because the original version of this legend served as Shakespeare’s inspiration. Eggers and co-writer Sjón use the tale as an outline rather than foundations to a beat for beat retelling, but it’s in the way the narrative unfolds, both cinematically and in the plot divergences, that The Northman stands alone. It’s Hamlet by way of Titus Andronicus, with the gothic magic of Macbeth, all while acting as this generation’s Braveheart.
The cinematography especially is worth your focus. There’s heavy gore and intense violence, but it’s always stylised and purposeful. The one trace of the blockbuster trappings the poster suggests can be found in the special effects, but it’s not used for explosions but instead for CGI explorations of inner organs and metaphorical family trees rendered literal. It feels like Eggers being entrusted with what he needs to bring his vision to life.
However, the best shots are the romantic, dark shadows on Björk and Anya Taylor-Joy or the fiery transitions between the brooding stare of Ethan Hawke and the unsettling gurn of Willem Dafoe. Even with the bigger scope, Eggers excels when he’s most intimate. It initially seems as though this will be a bombastic experience, told with epic. long, sweeping takes across a battlefield and fire and blood. You will find that in The Northman, but also so much more. It's as ferocious as it is precise. It's slow, atmospheric, and eerily gorgeous. If anything, the set-piece spectacles we might usually get in a movie like this intrude on the melancholic storytelling and understated performances that tie the whole thing together.
Thankfully, most of the movie is told in the smallest moments. Skarsgård is a strong lead, his singular driven quest mimicked by his restrained yet focused performance. That leaves it to the rest of the cast to offer the more obvious outward emotions for his nuance to bounce off, with Taylor-Joy doing most of the legwork. Individually, both turn in terrific performances, but they don’t always gel too well, both playing the relationship in different keys.
Skarsgård’s subdued performance here makes their relationship seem at times like one of convenience, or at best a physical intimacy forged in harsh circumstances. Taylor-Joy however plays it as an affair of passion, and the two approaches bounce off each other on occasion. Skarsgård’s take seems more fitting for the overall tone of the film, while Taylor-Joy’s makes for a more layered reading. Viking battle-axe to my head, I prefer the light-in-the-bleakness interpretation Taylor-Joy offers. She is, as ever, a star for the ages. Björk's cameo, however, is more fascinating than it is anything else – fans paying to see the movie for her will be disappointed, but hopefully pleasantly surprised by what the rest of the roster has to offer.
Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman also turn in particularly noteworthy performances, and what’s most intriguing is how they evolve as Amleth’s view of them changes. Bang starts off as a standard risible villain, but finds more complex notes as the story goes on. Told from another perspective, he might be the hero. Kidman meanwhile seemed set for her unfortunate party piece, seen previously in Eyes Wide Shut and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, of appearing in interesting movies but largely being sidelined in them. So it goes for her in the first half, before her turn ratchets up with all the sound and the fury in the second. It’s a crime how often she has been wasted throughout her career, but it’s not a sin Eggers commits here.
This is a bigger cast than Eggers has had to manage before, and while you might feel both Taylor-Joy and Kidman could have benefited from more time to light up the screen, everything feels well balanced. There are, however, a few indulgences it could do without. The Northman is not really an action movie, but it seems at times to view itself as one, or at least want us to. There’s a break in the taut, haunting story for what I can only describe as a game of Viking Quidditch. Yes, it’s a real historic sport (Knattleikr) and yes, it eventually leads to some relevance to the plot, but it feels as if it has no business being here. There are a few other moments where it feels as if we're building to something, whereas The Lighthouse constantly threw that something, whatever it was, at you, while The Witch was more effective at creeping under your skin. There are a greater range of performances here, and more spectacular visuals, but where Eggers' two previous movies grabbed you by the throat and never let go until the credits roll, you feel him pause to adjust his grip once or twice here.
Continuing comparisons to The Witch and especially The Lighthouse, there are also some scenes which seem to relish their defiance of comprehension, but they’re more refined than The Lighthouse and your mileage may vary on how much of a negative you view dark and confusing developments in a Robert Eggers movie. It tries, but doesn’t quite pierce you like The Witch, while it brings some of the bombastic relentlessness of The Lighthouse but with a more controlled, better executed finesse. It’s his third feature-length picture, and with it nestling nicely between the other two in terms of both visual and narrative style, fans of his earlier work will know what to expect.
Ultimately, The Northman is a good movie elevated by a couple of great performances at the centre of it. Even if Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy aren’t always hitting the same notes, there’s a discordant beauty to the tale they tell. With an array of superb supporting stars, ominous imagery, and a narrative that slowly tightens its grip around you like a tree taking root, The Northman is fierce and ethereal at once. As intelligent as it is violent, I doubt there will be another movie this year quite like it.
Score: 4/5. TheGamer was invited to a screening by Universal for this review
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