Film Review: The Northman (2022)

In his previous two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers transported audiences to a paranoid household on a 17th century New England farm and a 19th century lighthouse run by two men losing their minds, respectively. Eggers’ latest outing once again takes the audience back in time, and this time around we’re headed way back to the year 895 A.D. 

The Northman follows a young prince (and heir to the throne) named Amleth (Oscar Novak; later Alexander Skarsgård). Shortly after the return of his father (Ethan Hawke), Amleth joins him to engage in a trippy ceremony with the King’s jester (Willem Dafoe; entertaining but slightly underutilized). During the ceremony the father/son duo crawl around and howl as dogs while showcasing their belches and flatulence to prove themselves human. Eventually, they get down to brass tacks; the king has accepted a fate he sees as inevitable, that being his glorious death in battle, struck down by a foe. Amleth vows that when that day comes, he will avenge his father by killing the assailant. 

Early the next morning, Amleth’s vow is tested when his father gets beheaded by his cousin Fjölnir (Claes Bang). In fear for his life, Amleth hides from Fjölnir’s men in the woods, ultimately evading them, but not before hacking the nose off of one unlucky sod. Amleth watches in vain as Fjölnir spills blood throughout the kingdom and kidnaps his screaming mother (Nicole Kidman). With his vow in mind, Amleth flees in a small boat while repeating his oath, “I will avenge you, father; I will save you, mother; I will kill you, Fjölnir.” 

On his conquest of revenge, the hot-headed Amleth comes across a woman named Olga, a cunning slave whose personal motto would likely be akin to, “I don’t give a damn.” This character is brought to life by the ever-prolific Anya Taylor-Joy, in her most daring performance since the aforementioned The Witch; one scene has Olga disuading (successfully) a man from raping her by smearing menstrual blood on his face… YEAH. Unfortunately, her character is mostly surface-level and underdeveloped, but she’s still a very welcome and entertaining addition regardless. 

Taylor-Joy and Skarsgård are definitely memorable as the lead protagonists; the latter brings a theater-like grandiosity and emotionality that works *chef’s kiss* oh, so well. Plenty of the standouts come from the supporting cast, though; Björk joins the team as an eerie, eyeless prophet for one of the film’s most memorable moments; Nicole Kidman has a wonderfully strenuous scene as the queen; and the aforenamed Dafoe, Hawke, and Bang are all enchanting in their respective roles. One thing present in all of Eggers’ projects (The Northman included) is the focus on their characters in relation to the time period — the world is reflected effectively through characters and performances rather than relying solely on production design to bring that immersive feel. 

Working itself into the midst of a brutal, gory, Shakespearean plot are very interesting themes dealing with the justification of revenge, the uncertainty of fate, and the integrity of oaths; the film does a great job of never feeling too heavy with any of these. The pure brutality of the age is illustrated through long takes of extreme violence and bloodshed.  

The Northman is certainly the most monumental of Eggers’ three outings thus far. Although its more confined predecessors are slightly more ambitious overall, The Northman is a fantastic addition that seamlessly rides the line between mainstream and arthouse, making it a creative but accessible film, and well worth the watch.

Overall rating: 8/10

Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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