Based on the legend of Amleth, The Northman is the story of a prince who witnesses the murder of his father in the hands of his uncle who has also taken his mother prompting the prince to go on a two-decade journey to become a Viking and seek vengeance. Directed by Robert Eggers and screenplay by Eggers and Sjon, the film is a revenge story of sorts but also how a boy becomes a man in not just reclaiming his family’s honor but also to find his own identity. Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Any Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Bjork, Willem Dafoe, and Nicole Kidman. The Northman is a visceral yet ravishing film from Robert Eggers.
The film is the story of a young prince who witnesses the murder of his father by his uncle forcing the young prince to flee as he later grows into a man seeking revenge as he is aided by a slave in reclaiming his throne. It is a film with a simple premise where it isn’t just about revenge but also a boy becoming a man and trying to find himself and the fate of his quest. The film’s screenplay by Robert Eggers and Sjon is largely straightforward in its narrative yet it is more about the journey that its protagonist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) takes from the time he witnesses his father in King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) be murdered by his uncle Fjornir (Claes Bang) when Amleth was a child (Oscar Novak) as its first act is about Amleth making an oath to get revenge on his uncle and save his mother in Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) from his clutches. The first act also shows him becoming a Viking where he helps attack villages and such until an encounter with a Seeress (Bjork) who tells him that Fjornir has been exiled from Norway and is in Iceland with his mother, his eldest son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), and their youngest in Gunnar (Elliott Rose).
The second act revolves Amleth going to Iceland by posing as a slave where he meets another slave in Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a sorceress as she would help Amleth in seeking revenge. Yet, things become complicated as Amleth learns about Gunnar and the new world that Fjornir and Gudrun live in as they kept a low profile while Amleth also learns that his father’s jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe) had also been killed by Fjornir where Amleth meets the He-Witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) who serves a medium for Heimir for Amleth. Amleth doesn’t reveal himself directly to his mother as he and Olga continue to work in secrecy as they would fall in love but things do get more troubling following some revelations leading into its third act. Notably as it does play into Amleth’s own devotion to his father and his father’s devotion to the spiritual world and nature itself.
Eggers’ direction definitely has elements of style but also this element of physicality into the world that these characters live in as it is intense and at times, unforgiving. Shot on various locations in parts of Great Britain as well as Ireland and Iceland, Eggers maintains this sense of physicality in these locations with the first twenty minutes set in this cold mountain forest where there are these gorgeous imagery with the daytime exteriors and interiors having this sense of the cold and the scenes at night were it is all about natural lighting that include this spiritual ceremony hosted by Heimir for the young Amleth and King Aurvandill. The usage of close-ups and medium shot in that ceremony also include these surrealistic images that play into this connection with the spiritual world as they would occur often in the film including a shot of a young Amleth on a horse running towards the light that is Valhalla.
Eggers also uses a lot of wide shots to get a scope of these locations but also these surroundings the characters are in as it also play into a moment in time that is brutal but also entrancing. Notably in shots where Eggers uses the wide shots in using these dolly-tracking shots to showcase the places that Amleth is in whether it is the palace building he’s in as a child or the place to retrieve a sword that he needs for his quest. The usage of the dolly-tracking shots would also play into the suspense including scenes late in the second act where Fjornir deals with these mysterious attacks where Eggers also maintains this air of brutality in the violence as it would intensify in the third act. Notably the climatic showdown between Amleth and Fjornir as it is told in a stylized manner that owes more to the prophecy that Amleth had to follow yet there are these surrealistic elements that bring a lot of power to this climax. Overall, Eggers crafts a mesmerizing yet unsettling film about a young Viking prince going on a quest for vengeance against his uncle.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke does amazing work with the film’s cinematography with its stylish usage of filters for a few surrealistic shots while much of it is natural in some of the interiors with its usage of fire as light as well as its emphasis on available light for some of the exterior scenes. Editor Louise Ford does excellent work with the editing as its emphasis on having shots play out while also emphasizing on jump-cuts and rhythmic cuts to help play into the suspense and action. Production designer Craig Lathrop, with set decorators Pancho Chamorro and Niamh Coulter plus art directors Robert Cowper and Paul Ghirardini, does incredible work with the film’s art direction in the design of the village and castle that the young Amleth lived in to the fortress that he would attack as a Viking and the home that Fjornir would live in with Gudrun. Costume designer Linda Muir does fantastic work with the costumes from the design of some of the gowns that Gudrun wear as well as the armor that Fjornir and King Aurvandill wore as well as some of the wool clothes the other characters wore.
Hair/makeup designer Maralyn Sherman, with special effects makeup designer David White, does brilliant work with the look of a few characters with the Seeress being a major example as well as the look of a few spiritual figures that Amleth meets. Special effects supervisor Sam Conway, along with visual effects supervisors Angela Barson, Colin McCusker, and David Scott, does terrific work with some of the visual effects that include some of the film’s surrealistic imagery as well as some of the animals the characters encounter. Sound editors James Harrison and Steve Little, along with sound designers Jimmy Boyle and David Volpe, do phenomenal work with the sound as it help play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as the usage of layered dialogue for some of the surrealistic moments as it is a highlight of the film. The film’s music by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is remarkable as it is a highlight of the film with its usage of percussions, discordant strings, and other sounds to help create an unsettling tone for the film.
The casting by Kharmel Cochrane is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Ralph Ineson as a ship captain Amleth and Olga meet late in the film, Magne Osnes as a berserker priest who had become a father figure for Amleth, Kate Dickie as a senior slave who sort of runs Fjornir’s farm, Olwen Fouere as Fjornir’s priestess, Hafpor Julius Bjornsson as a rival tribe champion that Amleth fights during a game of knattleikr, Eldar Skar and Phill Martin as a couple of Fjornir’s housecarls with the former who lost his nose from a fight with the young Amleth, and Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson as the He-Witch as a spiritual figure who would serve as a medium for Heimir. Oscar Novak and Elliott Rose are terrific in their respective roles as the young Amleth and his eventual half-brother Gunnar as two young boys who both adore their fathers with the former feeling the need to get revenge while the other is struggling to prove to himself as a prince. Gustav Lindh is superb as Fjornir’s eldest son Thorir the Proud as a prince who is eager to rule over the slaves as he takes a disliking towards Amleth unaware of his true identity.
Bjork is fantastic in her brief role as a Seeress as this mysterious spiritual figure who would guide and remind Amleth of his quest for revenge while Willem Dafoe’s brief role as King Aurvandill’s jester Heimir is excellent for its sense of energy and intrigue as someone who doesn’t just favor the spiritual world but also the physical world. Ethan Hawke is brilliant as King Aurvandill as a man of simple ideas as he has a close bond with his son while he is also a man who loves nature and the spiritual world. Nicole Kidman is amazing as Queen Gudrun as a woman who is Amleth’s mother but is unaware of his identity believing he had died where she is devoted to her son and stepson/nephew as she also brings a lot of ambiguity to her role. Claes Bang is incredible as Fjornir as King Aurvandill’s brother who would take the throne feeling that his brother is too much of a savage as he is also someone that wants to make his own mark following his own exile.
Anya Taylor-Joy is sensational as Olga as a slave who claims to be a sorceress as she befriends and later falls for Amleth where she doesn’t just help him in getting his revenge but is also someone who also has a connection with nature and the spiritual world in the hope that a better future would come. Finally, there’s Alexander Skarsgard in a phenomenal performance as Amleth as a young prince who goes on a quest for vengeance to avenge his father and save his mother where he deals with the complexities of his mission and the added stakes as it relates to his family as well as his uncle where Skarsgard brings in a lot of restraint but also an intensity into his performance where it is a major breakout performance for him.
The Northman is a tremendous film from Robert Eggers that features great performances from Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy. Along with its ensemble cast, gorgeous yet grimy visuals, intense music score, eerie sound design, its study of revenge and fate, and its idea of myth and spirituality. It is a film that doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to revenge films while it is also a study of a man trying to do what is right while facing obstacles that would push him further into his quest. In the end, The Northman is a spectacular film from Robert Eggers.
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I have yet to see anything by Robert Eggers. His films seem to be too dark and scary for me, and this one sounds too bloody violent for my taste. I'd have to take your word for it that it is good, but I don't think I can stomach it.
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