Forged in flame and fury, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is an exquisite tale of violent vengeance that takes no prisoners. Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón (who also recently co-wrote A24’s Icelandic creature feature Lamb), the film is ever-arresting and steeped in the director’s long-standing penchant for period accuracy. While it spectacularly showcases Eggers’ directorial prowess, there is a palpable presence of tampering by outside studio forces, the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic leanings polished down for mass-appeal. Yet the laborious undertaking—costing between $70-90 million, an enormous contrast to the $11 million budget of 2019’s The Lighthouse, and even more so to the $4 million budget of his debut feature The Witch—pays off massively, still able to convey the meticulous artistry indicative of an Eggers effort. Visually stunning and painstakingly choreographed, The Northman perfectly measures up to its epic expectations.
The legend chronicled in The Northman feels totally fresh, and at the same time quite familiar. King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is slain by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who in turn takes the deceased ruler’s throne and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for his own. Before succumbing to fratricide, Aurvandill names his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak) as his successor, making him an immediate next target for his uncle’s blade. Narrowly evading capture, Amleth rows a wooden boat over the choppy waters of coastal Ireland, tearfully chanting his new life’s mission: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
Years later, Amleth (played by a muscular yet uniquely unassuming Alexander Skarsgård) has distinguished himself as a ruthless warrior among a clan of Viking berserkers, donning bear pelts and pillaging a series of villages in a furious stupor. After one of his tribe’s successful conquests, he hears the name of his father’s murderer for the first time since the day his kingdom fell. Apparently, Fjölnir has been exiled to the inhospitable island of Iceland, having lost the crown he stole from Amleth’s father to a Norwegian invasion. The fire of his fury newly awoken, Amleth disguises himself as a slave bound for Fjölnir’s Icelandic residence, meeting indentured Slav (and self-professed sorceress) Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) on the treacherous boatride across the Atlantic. When he arrives in the land of black sand beaches and bubbling hot springs, Amleth slowly plans his white-hot, unsparing revenge.
Based on Danish historian and author Saxo Grammaticus’ 13th century text, The Northman is perhaps most identifiable as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, itself an adaptation of the Danish tale. However, the roots of the Old Norse legend are speculated to date as far back as a 10th century Icelandic poem, though there exists no physical preservation of this text. As such, Grammaticus’ version is the oldest piece of writing to detail the vengeful prince’s quest.
As always, Eggers’ recurring cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who won an Academy Award for his work on The Lighthouse) instills a cinematic language all his own, while capturing filmic allusions with his distinct eye for texture and framing. One scene recalls the stomach-sinking brutality of Elem Klimov’s anti-war opus Come and See (1985), another the fantastical Viking folklore of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982). In fact, The Northman recalls a markedly ‘80s proclivity for action and ostentation, which might seem jarring when imagining Eggers’ frequent attention to atmosphere over activity. But Blaschke transitions seamlessly, ditching long, static takes for free-range fluidity. Though the use of extended oners is certainly not remiss in the film, the constant movement of the camera is truly titillating and immersive. Though The Northman spans well over two hours, each and every moment is packed with visual potency and narrative significance—there’s not a single dull second.
What will surely stick with audiences above all else are the film’s stirring, wholly committed performances. Skarsgård is particularly phenomenal, channeling childhood wounds through each act of vengeful wrath. Though he most often shares the screen with Taylor-Joy, his on-screen love interest, their affair pales pitifully in comparison to the taboo chemistry that electrifies each interaction Amleth shares with his mother, Queen Gudrún. Kidman is absolutely in her element here: Her accent is intoxicating, each line of dialogue dripping with intimate intrigue that disquiets as much as it disarms. Hawke and Willem Dafoe (who plays Heimir the Fool, King Aurvandill’s best friend and mythic confidant) are similarly exhilarating. One sequence in particular showcases the duo’s thespian talents (and roots in experimental New York theater), involving a spiritual, henbane-induced trip shared by the King, Heimir and a young Amleth—infusing the script with a comedic slant, as fart jokes and dog impersonations lighten the mood before disaster strikes. While Björk’s cinematic comeback is brief, it is far more suited for her specific brand of artistry than her traumatizing involvement in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Playing a seeress, she details her prophecy in her signature vocal delivery, adorned in a stunning ensemble that rivals her elaborate on-stage costumes. This is Björk at her most effortlessly enigmatic, blessing audiences with her commanding persona, shrouded in the mysticism of her native Iceland’s past.
The Northman is an accessible, captivating Viking epic teeming with the discordant, tandem force of human brutality and fated connection. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that the film feels noticeably less Eggers-like in execution compared to his preceding works. It boasts a much bigger ensemble, seemingly at the expense of fewer unbroken takes and less atmospheric dread. In the same vein, it eschews the filmmaker’s interest in New England folktales, though The Northman does incorporate Eggers’ fascination with forestry and ocean tides. However, The Northman melds the best of Eggers’ established style—impressive performances, precise historical touchstones, hypnotizing folklore—with the newfound promise of rousing, extended action sequences. The result is consistently entertaining, often shocking and imbued with a scholarly focus. It would be totally unsurprising if this were deemed by audiences as Eggers’ definitive opus. For those already enamored with the director’s previous efforts, The Northman might not feel as revelatory as The Witch or as dynamic at The Lighthouse. What the film lacks in Eggers’ filmic ideals, though, it more than makes up for in its untouchable status as a fast-paced yet fastidious Viking revenge tale. The Northman is totally unrivaled by existing epics—and perhaps even by those that are undoubtedly still to come, likely inspired by the scrupulous vision of a filmmaker in his prime.
Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers, Sjón
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Björk
Release Date: April 22, 2022 (Focus Features)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan