The world of The Northman is one without heroes. It is a world of power, anger and vengeance. The story of a man’s life’s quest to avenge his father by killing his uncle, it is a violent Viking epic filled with bold images. Director Robert Eggers has a strong visual sense (which he has previously displayed in the unsettling The Witch and bizarre The Lighthouse). He stuffs this movie, not just with washed-out colors emphasizing the red of blood, but also with fantastical visuals straight out of a dream, like a Valkyrie flying to Valhalla. Its protagonist is Shakespearean in his single-minded journey toward revenge (the screenplay is based on the same legend that inspired Hamlet). Its story is operatic in its emotions and the seeming inevitability of everyone’s fate. The outline of The Northman may sound familiar, yet Eggers has created something quite unique.
Amleth is a child when his father, the king, is beheaded by his uncle right in front of him. He escapes in a boat and vows to return one day to avenge his father, save his mother (who has been claimed as his uncle’s queen) and kill his uncle. Years later, now a battle-hardened Viking, he comes home to carry out his brutal revenge.
The performances (by Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, among others) are perfect for the material. They are raw, focused only on bringing out whatever bare emotion is called for in any given scene. Mostly, it is anger, though there is some sadness and a couple of fleeting moments of happiness. Skarsgård, as the adult Amleth, is wrath personified. Every decision, every motion, every breath is with the thought of killing his uncle and freeing his family from their torment. He is neither a good man nor a bad man; he is barely an independent being. He does have a few tender conversations with a young woman played by Anya Taylor-Joy, that suggest what kind of man he could’ve been, had things gone differently. The reality of The Northman (129 minutes, without the end credits) is too harsh for romance.
An interesting aspect of the screenplay by Sjón and Robert Eggers is that this is not about good versus evil. Yes, Amleth is fighting for the memory of the man he loved, but he will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve his goal. If he is kind, it is merely to further his agenda. If he is cruel, it is what his God wills.
On the other hand, Fjölnir isn’t evil, per se. He is a complicated man who did what any king did back then to get on the throne. He is a killer and a rapist. However, he does appear to genuinely love his two sons, an emotion that Amleth seems to have lost amid all his hatred. The moral waters are further muddied by Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke as Amleth’s parents. Eggers doesn’t make things easy by giving his story a villain who is clearly worse than his protagonist. Just because Amleth’s purpose is more honorable doesn’t make him honorable. It is an intriguing layer that adds to the depth of the production.
The Northman is epic in scope, inherently violent, exhilarating in its creativity and exhausting in its emotions. It is a revenge tale through and through, with nothing else on its main character’s mind except for what it will take to give his father the only form of justice he knows. It is beautiful, ugly, smart, vicious, thrilling to watch and as relentless as Amleth. In a world of remakes, sequels and reboots, Eggers has made a familiar plot feel completely new. His first two films were really good; this cements him as a director to keep an eye on.
4½ out of 5
Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth
Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest
Claes Bang as Fjölnir The Brotherless
Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún
Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandil War-Raven
Gustav Lindh as Thórir The Proud
Willem Dafoe as Heimir The Fool
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Sjón and Robert Eggers