The transition from arthouse auteur to big-budget, studio backed filmmaker isn’t always a seamless one. Over the years, many have tried and failed to go from critically acclaimed independent cinema to crowd-pleasing, usually franchise driven filmmaking. A few examples spring to mind, David Lynch is one whose jump from weird, indie films didn’t work out, with his box office flop adaptation of Dune. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is another whose move from indie features to $125 million blockbuster didn’t live up to expectations, with his biblical epic Noah.
However Robert Eggers – known for his eerie, period horror/dramas The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, both produced by independent studio A24 – is not one who will follow the same path of filmmakers like Lynch and Aronofsky. His latest film, The Northman, is a Viking revenge tale for the ages, perfectly merging indie and big-budget filmmaking to make a brutal, mythological Viking epic.
The Northman tells the story of Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), who after the sudden death of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle (Claes Bang) swears revenge on his uncle, going on a brutal quest full of visions and violence.
To summarise, watching The Northman feels like being bludgeoned over the head with one of those thick history books all while tripping on some kind of psychotropic drug, but in a good way. The word ‘epic’ is often overused to describe these kinds of genre films but here it is warranted. Eggers has created an authentic yet surreal vision of the past full of blood, mud, screams and sweat.
So many of the shots in this looked like they were ripped from an ancient mural or cave painting, from exploding volcanoes to viscous village raids, the presentation and framing really brings The Northman to life. The cinematography from regular Eggers collaborator, Jarin Blaschke, is stunning. Multiple times I found myself thinking ‘how did they get that shot?’ – Everything is framed with precision and you can really see where the $90 million was spent, with many long unbroken takes (and I love me a long take!) really helping to immerse you in this world – as well as the brilliant production design and booming score. His work on The Lighthouse was brilliant but he has out done himself here.
In terms of story and plot, The Northman is nothing ground-breaking. It is based around the true story of Viking prince Amleth who loosely inspired the famous Shakespeare story of Hamlet. It’s a rather straightforward revenge tale of a former nobleman being thrown into disarray after the death of a family member, fighting and killing his way to the ones who wronged him, Gladiator anyone?
The Northman also mixes in a lot of Norse mythology into a rather grounded and authentic look at Viking culture, which sometimes can work in its favour – such as an early scene involving Willem Dafoe’s character in a strange coming-of-age ritual- whereas other instances of divine intervention can come across as random and very convenient to the main characters needs without much growth, depth or explanation at all.
The acting however is top notch, aside from a few suspect accents (Nicole Kidman in particular!), everyone is at their best. Alexander Skarsgard is unrecognisable here, he completely transforms into this vengeful, hulking warrior who looks and feels like he was born to play this part. Anya Taylor Joy has a good role as a mysterious slave who mainly acts as the love interest to Skarsgard but does well with what she’s given. Elsewhere you have bit parts from Willem Dafoe as a weird shaman/court jester and Ethan Hawke as the Viking king. While they’re not here for long they leave a lasting impact on the rest of the film. Claes Bang as the main antagonist Fjolnir also does well up against a shredded Skarsgard, with the two proving to be a good match for each other by the final climactic battle.
Robert Eggers has been quoted saying he set out to make the definitive Viking movie and he definitely succeeded. The Northman feels like part historical-drama, part brutal revenge tale and part psychedelic fever dream. For anyone who is a fan of the historical ‘epic’, this is the film for you. It gets a little weird in places, sometimes a little too weird for its own good and doesn’t have the most original story, but the pure primal nature and stunning cinematography of The Northman make it a fascinating watch worthy of the big screen and cements Eggers as one of the most exciting directors working today.