The Northman is brutal, unrelenting, and visually magnificent, drawing from the dark tragedies of Scandinavian legend to create a modern masterpiece under the guidance of visionary director, Robert Eggers.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Oscar Novak, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Björk
The Northman tells the story of Amleth, a noble and honourable Viking prince who sets out on a quest for vengeance as a young child and is moulded into an unstoppable Viking berserker by the brutal world he discovers. During the raid of a Rus village, Amleth encounters a Seeress, who reminds him of his oath as a child and redirects the hulking and heartless embodiment of wrath to the destination where his revenge and the echoing, bloody screams of his enemies await him.
Watching The Northman was a relieving breath of fresh (albeit bloody) air after a noticeable decline in the visual quality and cinematography of mainstream media as an art form. Without sounding pretentious, it’s increasingly rare that a film of any depth can balance story-telling and tone with complementary visuals that draw you in for the full experience.
Robert Eggers is at the helm as writer (with Icelandic poet, Sjón), director and producer, continuing on from his critically acclaimed films The Lighthouse and The VVitch with the same exceptional quality you can rarely expect but always hope from a director capable of finding the cinematic beauty in the darkest parts of fantasy.
As with those previous films, the complementary balance of lingering, menacing cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) and a score filled with building dread and intensity (Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough) frame the story perfectly, both enhancing the emotional weight of the narrative and elevating the performances to a mutually excellent level.
The cast of The Northman is ferocious in their performance intensity, working as individuals and an ensemble cast to equally and mutually shine without harming the film as a whole. As young Amleth, Oscar Novak offers an outstanding depiction of a boy on the verge of manhood and accepting his destiny, allowing a seamless transition into his adult form, a savage harbinger of death portrayed with cold menace by Alexander Skarsgård.
Skarsgård spends much of his time filling every frame he occupies with animalistic rage and unquenchable fury, maintaining this throughout a character arc of growth and tenderness into the film’s closing scenes. We meet and leave Amleth as a proud and noble Viking prince, one both capable of accepting the destiny and greatness thrust upon him, but also greeting it and fulfilling it with honour and dignity.
Guiding Amleth through this journey, and ensuring Skarsgård can maintain his beautifully brooding focus throughout, is a phenomenal supporting cast that weaves much of the emotional weight carried by Amleth throughout the film. Nicole Kidman gives an over-the-top performance as Queen Gudrún and Amleth’s mother, which anywhere else would be almost pantomime material but here fits as perfectly as Toni Collette in Hereditary.
Ethan Hawke is an absolute standout in his supporting role as King Aurvandill War-Raven, Amleth’s father, growling and howling through an award-worthy performance that serves as the heart of the story’s revenge narrative. Both Claes Bang as Fjölnir, Aurvandill’s jealous brother, and Willem Dafoe as Heimir the Fool, are exemplary, with the former displaying a cold, detached and repressed rage throughout the film’s narrative worthy of Amleth’s devotion. Dafoe continues to be as wildly unpredictable as ever, guiding the characters and the viewer into a surreal, Scandinavian world of psychedelic fortune-telling and destiny.
Even in 910 AD, Anya Taylor-Joy can’t help but capture all the stillness and clinical tidiness of a porcelain doll, but is one of few actors who can provide steadiness and unwavering intensity in their performance to form this seamlessly into her character. Her dualistic opposite portraying order and empathy as Olga of the Birch Forest to Amleth’s personification of entropy gives the slower and restrained sections of the film the heart required to carry it into the third and final act.
An unpredictably wild cameo (and that’s saying something) by Björk as the Seeress ties the film’s overarching tone to Eggers’ previous work and the themes of sacrifice, forbidden knowledge, and destiny. Eggers’ previous collaborations with Taylor-Joy and Dafoe, and his body of work as a whole, seem to suggest that he’s a director with an exceptional eye for quality and talent, capable of identifying all the necessary components to execute a complex and magnificent cinematic vision without compromise to mainstream formulas and traditions.
It may be another few years before we have the chance to see how Eggers and his collaborators continue to weave this special kind of dark magic but, until then, The Northman is a perfect example of his growth as a director, and his ability to draw the best out of both the actors and the viewer as a result.
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