With The Northman, Robert Eggers has constructed an action movie several times larger and more barbarous than either of his previous two films. The sweeping landscapes, harsh seas, and gratuity of the Viking revenge thriller are well beyond the tired paranoia of The Lighthouse or folktale grimace of The Witch. Rest assured, such increased scope has only exacerbated his offbeat sensibilities, leading to what may be his finest work to date.
Staying with period pieces, The Northman jumps back to circa 10th century Europe, for a retelling of Amleth, a Norse legend about a prince who, after witnessing his uncle kill his father, dedicates himself to avenging his family. It was an inspiration to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though Elsinore and the Bard’s verses are some ways away from Eggers’s Scandinavian epic.
There is still poetry, mind, just of a different sort: brutal raids, choreographed between dozens of onscreen performers; animalistic rituals that bridge the gap between wolf and man; dreamy hallucinations that suggest profound spiritual connection. Grand monologues are yelled with committed fervour, split between English and Scandinavian. The Northman is as mythic and literary as it is contemporary and cinematic.
Our Amleth is shared between two actors: Oscar Novak, who covers the introduction as a child, before we switch to the hulking Alexander Skarsgård, for the adult portion. Once he escapes the clutches of his murderous uncle Fjölnir, Amleth joins a band of wandering raiders. Now a long-haired, muscular berserker, he leads cutthroat settlement invasions, cleaving through any that stand in his way.
Those who survive the initial slaughter are sorted for trading as slaves. Amleth catches wind that one boatful is off to a quiet farm owned by Fjölnir in Iceland and, understanding this is a chance to infiltrate the property, cuts his hair and sneaks onto the shipment to be counted among the menial workers.
Eggers’s naturalism breeds beautiful, but severe backdrops. Russian and Icelandic sections are bountiful with vast, brilliantly coloured vistas, flowing from green fields and forests to brown and white volcanic hills. Contending with the elements makes any sightseeing short lived, sunlight beating down on besotted travellers, rain soaking through every pore.
It’s a world that necessitates Amleth’s rugged brawn to survive. Even he is tested by the turbulent waves of his cross-euro-migration, lending a hand to Olga, a captive sorceress played by Anya-Taylor Joy. They form a bond through a shared resolve, and understanding that their destinies are greater than servitude.
The Northman takes a quieter stride on Fjölnir’s homestead. We simmer with Skarsgård’s Amleth, who goes to lengths to keep himself close to the object of his seething animosity. His emotional state dictates the mood and pacing. Earlier, he’s practically feral, and the camera stays with him through the merciless onslaught. Now, he has his target, and it serves him better to be coy and bide his time.
High seas: The best adventure movies
Much like Eggers’s previous work, The Northman contains light supernatural elements. At first, they’re presented as part of initiations and tributes to Odin and the other gods and spirits. Amleth has a vision of a family tree after being ingratiated as next in line for the throne, and briefly enters a fugue state while participating in a ceremonial dance. Björk appears as a blinded, grey-skinned prophet, able to watch time flowing from a higher plane.
These sequences tend to involve some amount of barking, wanton rejection of the human form, and Willem Dafoe as a sagely talking head. Eggers, and his co-writer Sjón, combine era-specific spiritualism with our own desire for mythology of this time period to have some element of truth to it, if for nothing else than it sounds cool.
A close encounter with a zombie knight in order to retrieve a sword dubbed the ‘Undead’, not unlike something out of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, is shrugged off as an apparition, but played out in full detail. Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score fuses tribal percussion with rumbling strings, oscillating between flurries of sadness and anger.
It’s perhaps the closest we’ll get to The Lord of the Rings interpreted by Béla Tarr; grubby and forlorn, but broken up by occasional breaths of lush greenery. Even with the magnitude of it all, loneliness permeates the screen. Fjölnir’s guards hound people to work, and you’d be captured, or worse, if you were spotted on the run beyond the grounds.
Fjölnir himself runs a tight ship, Claes Bang bodying the role with a particular assurance that comes from believing you’ve only ever taken what’s yours. He’s deputied by his son, who suffers the consequences of Fjölnir’s legacy more than his parents do. The Northman has no shortage of sublime effects work, yet it’s one grotesque image that will surely haunt viewers more than most – trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
True respite comes with connection, and a dalliance between Amleth and Olga is the only time we don’t see them covered in mud or other bodily fluids. Their intimacy is drowned in blue light, as if another daydream, given appropriate clarity by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Taylor-Joy brings a tenderness out of Skarsgård that amplifies the surrounding hardship. Wielding the power of the Earth, Olga believes they could be unstoppable together.
Believe: The best fantasy movies
Indeed they could, but Amleth has only one goal. He sees his mother, Gudrún, an acutely frayed Nicole Kidman, now married to Fjölnir, who recognises him but doesn’t want to leave. A final meeting before the inevitable happens. When Amleth and Fjölnir finally meet, a volcano erupts, literally and figuratively.
You can ponder that image, or you can see what it really looks like in The Northman. I can assure you, Robert Eggers’s version is as awesome as you imagine it is, just like the rest of this movie.
The Northman is in UK theatres April 15, and US theatres April 22.
The Northman review
Robert Eggers turns to Nordic mythology for his biggest and best film yet.