Warning: Spoilers for The Northman ahead, as well as descriptions of violent/disturbing content.
“I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” These words are from the foundation of Robert Eggers’ Viking epic that was released this April. The visionary director’s latest film follows a Scandinavian prince, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), whose father is killed by his uncle Fjölnir, making the cruel warrior the new king. Amleth flees the kingdom, and years later, he sets out for revenge. The visionary director’s film has a star-studded cast, including Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, and Willem Dafoe.
The film starts off strong, with an engaging prequel introducing you to the world. It takes a dip in quality for the next half-hour or so as Amleth makes his way to Fjölnir, but it comes back swinging in the last hour. The story is clearly based on Hamlet, but it comes nowhere near the quality of William Shakespeare’s play. The story is just too simple to need nearly two and a half hours, and the characters are, for the most part, two-dimensional.
Alexander Skarsgard’s performance is gripping, as he matches the beastly intensity of the character well. Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke both give solid supporting performances, and Nicole Kidman is strong as Amleth’s mother, Gudrún. The standout is Danish actor Claes Bang as the dastardly uncle Fjölnir. The character is the best written in the film, and Bang does a nice job of bringing him to life.
Technically, “The Northman” is outstanding. The cinematography is breathtaking, the editing is sharp, and the color palette is stellar. The sets, locations, and costumes all seem well thought out. The only technical aspect that’s lacking is the subpar CGI. The film’s themes also come through well, as Amleth’s quest for revenge grows bloodier and bloodier, and his initial goals become less clear than he originally believed. The film does a good job of showing this, but that’s part of the problem. This movie is messed up.
The content of The Northman is so, so terrible and tragic that it goes from shocking in a good way to shocking in a terrible way. The first sign things are going to get dark is early on when Amleth’s group of wolf-like soldiers raids a village and burns it, with people still inside the buildings. The content only gets worse from here, involving horse death, dog death, child murder, limb art (you read that right), and incestuous kissing. Well, at least the good guys can stop the bad guys who are committing these atrocities, right? Nope. The good guys did the vast majority of those things. On one hand, it makes you think about the lengths Amleth is going to, as the director intended, but on the other hand, nobody wants to see these things.
The Northman has many things going for it: good performances, excellent cinematography, deep themes, and an engaging story. However, some parts of the film feel more like a drawn-out, ultra-violent gloom fest. The Northman falls into the category of many movies that had enormous hype, but despite being good films, didn’t quite live up to expectations. Personally, I’d recommend the film. It’s well done, and it’s just a taste of what Robert Eggers can do.