Robert Eggers has earned the reputation for turning heads, and as soon as The Northman was announced, I was on board. The Witch was a delightfully subversive film, and The Lighthouse was one of my favourite stories of 2019. Now here we are three years later, with Eggers’ typical cadence, taking on Viking culture with current it-man Alexander Skarsgård. What ends up playing out isn’t quite what you’d expect, but Eggers’ signature surrealism ensures that he wasn’t just retreading common ground.
We begin The Northman with young prince Amleth, who is in turn based on the medieval legend of the same name. While all is currently right in the kingdom, as Amleth’s father, and current king Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), things go wrong very quickly. Hamlet style, Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir takes over the kingdom in a bloody revolt, and captures Queen Gudrún, Amleth’s mother. Our hero gets away safely through some luck and grit, and the real tale kicks off with an adult version after a time-lapse, played by Alexander Skarsgård.
“The Northman is a tough film to critique…”
Okay, with the table-setting out of the way, this two hour and change epic goes through a lot of story beats, centred on metaphorical and literal narrative elements of Norse mythology. We get a healthy mix of spiritualism and brutality, which come together to form a mixture of chaos. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is perhaps his best work yet, providing sweeping looks at the vistas of Northern Ireland.
It’s also very clear that the film was a beast to edit. Although it clocks in at just over several hours, it feels a lot longer. There are moments where we get to sit and seethe with Amleth, as we move from place to place and start to see the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It can make for what some might call sluggish pacing, but Eggers ensures that the setting itself is a character, as he weaves the tale that he and accomplished writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson penned.
Similarly, The Northman is a tough film to critique. Those who go into it assuming it’s an action movie will be disappointed because it attempts to straddle many different genres. The tension is top-notch, as you constantly attempt to make sense of this world and figure out the path that Amleth is going to take in his somewhat nuanced quest. To really vibe with The Northman, you need to just enjoy the ride, as uneven as it is sometimes. Some parts succeed more than others, but it begs to be watched, often with your mouth agape.