Film review: ‘THE NORTHMAN’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Northman

The trailer for the Viking drama The Northman suggested a slightly silly sword-swinging muscleman epic or something like a feature length episode of the compelling but at times comically overwrought TV show Vikings. All of the above is partly true but this tale of filial vengeance comes from writer director Robert Eggers who helmed the remarkable and exceptionally creepy films The Witch and The Lighthouse.  Like those films, The Northman is, aside from moments of extreme violence, a hypnotically atmospheric film built around a story of ritual, magic, myth and madness.  Still, with only enough plot to fill an hour-long TV episode, this two hour plus saga feels padded.

With echoes of Hamlet (apparently the Norse tale on which The Northman is based inspired Shakespeare), the legend of King Arthur, Ben Hur and even Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, The Northman sees young heir to a Viking throne, Amleth (Oscar Novak) forced to flee into the wilderness when his nefarious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke wearing what appears to be Bjorn Borg’s hair from 1977) and kidnaps his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Years later, having grown into a ferocious Berserker warrior, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) still seethes with rage at his uncle’s act of betrayal and murder.  Now looking like a rugby player turned lead singer of a metal band or (much like Jared Leto in Morbius) a muscly Jesus, Amleth sees an opportunity to wreak revenge on his nemesis as he sneakily joins the latest batch of slaves destined for the now-deposed and exiled but still powerful Fjölnir’s farm in Iceland.  There, however, Amleth is confronted with painful choice of whether to satiate his bloodlust or seek a more peaceful life with the alluring fellow slave Olga (Ana Taylor Joy).

As much as a battle between Amleth and Fjolnir, The Northman is a struggle between a slightly ludicrous, violent action epic and a brooding, psychologically potent arthouse film.  Eggers fills the screen with enormous hirsute blokes, who could easily slot into a professional wrestling card, pillaging and murdering with animalistic ferocity and carousing with maniacal glee.  At first, it all seems like a ridiculous festival of macho posturing with frequent scenes of musclebound Vikings strutting through conquered villages.  Also, much of the dialogue consists of these earnest chaps making pompous pronouncements in guttural voices and there are far too many scenes of large, bearded men growling and bellowing at each other.

Eggers, however, situates the debauchery, warfare and brutal acts of vengeance within a visually intoxicating world of ravishing landscapes (Northern Ireland filling in for Iceland) to which he adds creepy encounters with the spirit world in noirish black and white segments and with Norse mythology in trippy psychedelic dream sequences.  Like The Witch, this film has an unsettlingly eerie mood and the sense of a world in which dark superstition holds sway. The film’s menacing atmosphere is conjured not only through potent visuals but also by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s impressive score which is filled with ominous booming drums.

While it steps into the realm of sword and sorcery, the film still manages to be gritty and visceral with characters constantly bathed in mud and blood.  Understandably, given the subject matter, this is a much more violent film than The Witch or The Lighthouse and the numerous scenes of savage and gory slayings are not for the squeamish.

Impressively, despite the emphasis on spectacle, the cast give layered and convincing performances.  Alexander Skarsgård has a remarkable mix of imposing physicality and wounded introspection, at times evoking a younger Liam Neeson.  Although she’s a little underused, Ana Taylor Joy brings to the role of Olga a mysterious quality similar to that of her character in The Witch but this time allied with clever and calculating mind.  Claes Bang, with his dark goatee, looks pretty much like every historical movie villain but he imbues Fjölnir with a complex blend of ruthlessness, intelligence and misplaced honour.  Nicole Kidman’s morally ambiguous Gudrun is clearly meant to evoke several Shakespearean women such as Queen Gertrude and Lady Macbeth but despite one impressively intense scene, she isn’t given enough opportunity to fully assert her character and influence the action or the tone of the film.

Often thrilling and bracingly inventive but at times so obvious it’s as if Eggers is donging us on the head with Thor’s hammer, this film intrigues, excites, irritates and occasionally bores.  At two hours 17 minutes, The Northman outstays its welcome but the opportunity to experience the artistry of one of contemporary cinema’s finest stylists in Robert Eggers makes it worthwhile.

Nick’s rating:    1/2

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Robert Eggers.

Release date: 21st Apr 2022.

Running time: 137 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.



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