There’s a touch of Tolkien to Robert Eggers’ latest, from mythical swords and entwined destinies to a final battle in the heart of a raging volcano. This isn’t a surprise, given Tolkien’s love for Norse mythology, and unsurprising too is the film’s passing resemblance to Ridley Scott’s revenge-fuelled Gladiator. But to compare The Northman to films past is to do it a disservice.
Eggers’ tale of brutal, Viking revenge stands alone, thrashing around in a phantasmagoric blur of rituals, bloodshed and mythology. Even if the story may feel well-worn, its execution is bold, visually expansive, and largely triumphant.
The story begins with the young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) relishing in the return of his all-conquering father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and battle-hardened uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). It’s no real spoiler to say this happiness does not last, and Amleth is soon forced to flee for his life, leaving behind his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and cursing the name of the man who has ripped apart his happy childhood.
Alexander Skarsgård & Anya Taylor Joy Interview
Flash-forward twenty or so years, and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is now a berserker, scouring the Lands of the Rus (modern-day Eastern Europe), taking lives, towns and trophies. Yet when the opportunity to exact revenge presents itself, the king without a country leaves this behind and heads to Iceland an enslaved stowaway, alongside the prickly Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy).
It’s a simple and predictable premise, but the thrill of The Northman comes from the fantastical and wildly bombastic elements which Eggers throws into the narrative. Even the real-world locations are dripping with drama and character, with the black beaches, rolling green hills and portentous peaks all adding to Eggers’ otherworldly canvass.
In his pursuit of something approaching historical accuracy, the director decides to fill the screen with Norse folklore and mysticism, from the presence of the Valkyrie through to hallucinogenic rituals. In doing so, he creates a ‘Viking’ world as they themselves may have perceived it, unmarred with the pressure of modern-day revisionism or scepticism.
All of this, too, is enmeshed in Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s thunderous and unrelenting score, which pins you to your chair as Skarsgård exacts his bloody revenge. As the titular character, Skarsgård is sublime. Even when the words he has to speak verge on the stilted, his stalking physicality is utterly convincing. Bang and Taylor-Joy deserve plaudits too, with the latter wholly selling Olga’s connection with a deeper world of magic and mysticism.
In its pursuit of these aggressively bold strokes, The Northman is almost overwhelming at points, and could have benefitted from a sharper edit in the second act to maintain its demented momentum (there are also a lot of guttural ululations and rituals). But to nitpick seems churlish when the scope is so grand and the ambition so unbowed. Perhaps the only chink in its armour is that, while Amleth is told he will soon have to choose between love for his kin and hatred for his enemies, his eventual answer never appears in doubt.
To some extent, the narrative is secondary, with primacy very much given to spectacle, and when it comes crashing together, The Northman’s euphoric viciousness is staggering. See it on the biggest screen possible.