REVIEW: The Northman [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 137 minutes
    Release Date: April 22nd, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Robert Eggers
    Writer(s): Sjón & Robert Eggers

We thirst for vengeance, but we cannot escape our fates.

Like the Brothers Grimm were to Disney with so many fairy tales, it appears Saxo Grammaticus was to William Shakespeare where it comes to Hamlet. The Danish historian’s lead character was Amleth—a young boy who witnesses the murder of his father and forced romance of his mother at the hands of his uncle before having to run away from the latter’s kill order so that he may return (if an ambitiously opportunistic soldier lies about watching him die). The parallels to the Bard’s Prince of Denmark end there, though, as the narrative skews towards brutality rather than politics with a couple extra twists along the way. Add a penchant for era-specific verisimilitude and Robert Eggers‘ adaptation (alongside Sjón) The Northman rides a wave of fire to Valhalla.

It’s led by Alexander Skarsgård (whose fascination with Norse lore brought Eggers on-board after meeting to discuss potential collaborations) as an all-grown-up Amleth with a trapezius so large that he pretty much lumbers around with an embellished hunch, readying to drive a thirsty blade through the hearts of his enemies. Raised by ruthless Vikings, it’s fate that brings his uncle’s name (Claes Bang‘s Fjölnir the Brotherless) back to his ears after so many years away. Apparently exiled in Iceland after Norway conquered the kingdom he stole from his brother (Ethan Hawke‘s King Aurvandil War-Raven), Amleth decides to brand himself a slave being sold there to get close enough to gauge the wellbeing of his mother (Nicole Kidman‘s Queen Gudrún). They’ll assume him a Christian without a second glance.

Destiny rules Amleth courtesy of a prophecy foretold by a seeress (Björk) who disappears as quickly as she arrives to tell him of a choice he’ll have to make before his quest to avenge his father is fulfilled: give joy to his kin or rage to his enemies. On that day he didn’t have to think too hard since bloodlust had driven him since he fled. With the introduction of a slave woman (Anya Taylor-Joy‘s Olga of the Birch Forest), however, love just might sway him to consider reason and salvation instead. As the ghosts from his past arrive either through the metaphoric personification of animals or shriveled heads preserved by witches, Amleth is forced to tread carefully to not expose his hand too soon. Terror before murder.

The journey is a simple one augmented by a slew of Viking history from a violent proto-lacrosse style game to the desire to howl like wolves to psych-up before a fight. Stuff like the latter often causes there to be a comedic slant to the proceedings that I still can’t quite discern was intentional or not since Eggers’ prior film The Lighthouse completely operated in a similar realm. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen Skarsgård’s goofier side more lately, but his whole performance seems like it’s bordering on self-parody until those moments where severity and malice win out. Eggers’ decision to throw so much in despite the plot just being a repetitive cycle of trauma doesn’t help matters as it only reminds us how little is going on.

That’s the downfall of leaning so hard on fate. As soon as Amleth is told his final battle with Fjölnir will occur on a lake of fire, he (and us) is forced to slow-walk everything until this unlikely setting manifests. It leads to some very cool scenes (dismembered body parts affixed to the side of a house like an animal), but also an exasperating sense of frustration once we realize the almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime could have been easily truncated. For every visually extraordinary (if over-the-top and overlong) sequence like that of Björk’s seeress or Ingvar Sigurdsson‘s “he-witch” comes a gorgeous landscape shot with Amleth telling Olga they must wait … again. All we can hope for is that the climatic fight will live up to our fading anticipation.

It does for the most part. I think the slow choreography is purposeful for authenticity’s sake when it comes to muscle-clad behemoths swinging massive iron weaponry, but things do look a bit too cumbersome at times in earlier fights (see Amleth scaling a wall only to land, turn, and maim the person waiting at their mark with a full beat between each action). The finale feels more fluid by comparison without relinquishing the extremely edge-lord aesthetic that Eggers embraces throughout. These are serious men prone to shout as often as they are to seethe and wait. Honor is paramount no matter how dishonorable one man may perceive another’s acts. Fjölnir might be Amleth’s enemy, but he might also be a just king. Every throne is won with blood.

I wish Eggers went bonkers because those moments when he flirts with all-out insanity are the best ones. Give us more of Kidman (who is very good) flicking blood onto the bare chests of the men in her family. Give us more of a random Valkyrja (Ineta Sliuzaite) screaming. Despite obvious fantastical elements (see the ravens), the film holds realism tightly to a fault. I wanted the splendor of a The Green Knight not because its better, but because The Northman had glimpses of pushing the envelope further than it allows. Execution, performance, and art direction are all unparalleled, but the whole simply proves a solid familial melodrama in the end. They can’t all be “great.” Maybe, The Witch notwithstanding, Eggers just isn’t quite my cup of tea.

[1] Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC
[2] Ingvar Sigurdsson as The Sorcerer in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC
[3] Nicole Kidman stars as Queen Gudrún in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

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