The Northman is a film that should not exist–not at its scale, not in this day and age. It is an unflinching epic of fire and ice, of burning love and cold-served vengeance. It is a story rooted in legend, but most viewers will probably be familiar with the bones of this tale from Hamlet, the Lion King, or Conan the Barbarian. Our protagonist, Prince Amleth, must avenge the death of his father and rescue his mother from the clutches of his uncle (or so he thinks). How director Robert Eggers managed to convince a studio to pay northward of a hundred million dollars so he could adapt this legend into an R-rated, ultra-violent, artistic yet historically-accurate viking film is beyond this reviewer’s ken. But man…am I glad he did!
Whether you’re a history buff, cinephile or just looking for an evening’s worth of entertainment, there’s a lot to love about The Northman. The cinematography is gorgeous throughout, making use of firelit interiors, natural exterior lighting, and the stunning vistas of Ireland and Iceland, where much of the film is set. Beauty and horror frequently coalesce on screen, creating a brooding, ominous tone that persists for the majority of the film. Not every scene is filled with blood and thunder, but the ceaseless tension will keep you ever-expectant of the violence to come. There are also a handful of truly impressive single-take shots which help create a frighteningly immersive experience.
Eggers’ penchant for hewing close to history when constructing these time-lost settings pays off once again. For a film so occupied with intangible and fantastical concepts–the gods, fate, destiny–it remains refreshingly grounded and tactile. Sure, we see men rise from the dead, gods made manifest, and an unforgettable naked sword fight at the base of a volcano, but despite a few instances of obvious CGI, the costumes, landscapes, and structures offer the texture necessary for transporting viewers to this 10th century setting.
The actors do a fine job overall, as well. While the chemistry between the two leads, Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy, is inconsistent, the pair do perform well throughout and ultimately sell the emotional punch demanded by the final jaw-dropping action set piece. I would, however, welcome more screen time for the incomparable Willem Dafoe (honestly, who wouldn’t?).
As a massive fan of Robert Eggers’ previous films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, I feel The Northman lacks some of the director’s characteristic weirdness. That isn’t to say the film is totally devoid of the uncanny, or any humorous beats, but I suspect some of Eggers’ special brand of strange got tossed to the cutting room floor. He has stated this is ‘his’ cut of the film, and as true as that may be, I hope to see an extended version at some point.
So, should you go see The Northman? Do you want to see a film that is unafraid of exploring grim aspects of human history and frightening inclinations of human nature? Do you want to feel the unapologetic testosterone pump of Conan the Barbarian and the fire-painted aesthetic of Frank Frazetta’s work? If you want to experience a film unlike most you’ve ever seen or will see again, then, yes, you really need to see The Northman. Gods willing, if this movie manages to become a financial success, we may even be treated to more films like it.