Robert Eggers made himself known within the current wave of indie-horror auteurs by faithfully recreating historical folk tales while capturing the paranoias of the cultures that created them. His 2015 debut “The Witch” recalled the elevated language and chamber drama of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” with a healthy dose of Ingmar Bergman-esque pessimism and gloomy American gothic folk-horror. In 2019, he followed up with his delirious nautical psychodrama, “The Lighthouse,” dipping back into his European art-house inclinations with Lovecraftian mythological overtones.
Eggers’ latest project, “The Northman,” ties his thematic obsessions and cerebral fantasy approach within the context of a Viking action-drama.
The source material adapted here by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjon is that of the legend of Amleth, collected in the works of Saxo Grammaticus. The tale features a young prince (Alexander Skarsgard), whose father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is killed by his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang). He then escapes and returns as an adult to avenge his father and save his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman).
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you recognize the plot from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Disney’s “The Lion King,” both adapted from the same source. The archetypal revenge narrative allows Eggers the freedom to indulge in style, theme, and other cinematic flourishes.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke returns with eggers to create sweeping vistas of the gorgeous Icelandic landscapes and several complicated tracking shots that gracefully glide through the action set-pieces. Their single-camera style conceals and captures just enough of the on-screen violence to creatively substitute where most action movies would pace a sequence with punctuated cuts and montage editing.
The performances are theatrical and grand, often augmented by an eerie magical realism derived from the film’s peculiar depictions of Norse rituals and their occult belief structures. Most of the character’s behaviors are captured less by the simplistic dialogue and more by their physicality. Skarsgard, Hawke, Bang, and the other warriors and slaves are men of action who speak through violence and brutality. Kidman as the duplicitous queen and Anya Taylor-Joy who plays Amleth’s enchantress lover Olga, enact their forms of brutality through wit and cunning.
Like Eggers’ other features, this is a stoic and totemic cinematic experience. Though the period details were recreated from historical records and painstaking research, the storytelling aims to evoke the awe and sublime irrationality of a time when myth and knowledge were intertwined as a singular ethos. Like the Norse Viking culture itself, this picture thrives within the intangible contradictions of a culture that observed and absorbed the other traditions and world faiths they conquered, while living by a steadfast tribalism that celebrated crude genocide and patriarchal rule. Amleth himself both lives outside of and embodies this contradiction, and he’s motivated and weakened by its reductive limitations.
Fans of swords and sandals movies like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” may find enough slice and dice and cheer-along moments to keep them satisfied, but “The Northman” challenges those mindless action tropes with condemning plot twists and a psychedelic atmosphere of Scandinavian mysticism.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.