Eggers' Viking Epic Is Brutal & Thrilling

Robert Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjón), The Northman is a fascinating story of revenge — at least on the surface. A son avenging his father’s murder is a gruesome affair in The Northman, with Eggers leaning into Norse mythology and the legend of Amleth, who inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The film has a lot going for it, fantastic battle scenes and mysticism that elevates the protagonist’s journey, but it is lacking in overall character. Young Amleth (Oscar Novak) is thrilled that his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is back, celebrating a victory against an enemy. Aurvandil believes it’s time for Amleth to become a man, and so he takes him to Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), a jester and priest, to begin his training. However, everything changes for Amleth when his father is attacked and killed in front of his eyes and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), captured. Years later, an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) seeks to avenge his father and save his mother, leading him on a journey to restore his family’s honor and take back the life that was stolen from him.

The Northman lacks a sense of nuance in its characters and in its story. There is very little learned about Amleth following his father’s murder or how he came to be found by the Berserkers, a violent group who attack a village and kill most of its people. It’s hard to fully be invested in his character when there isn’t much depth to be found there beyond the obvious. Amleth’s mission is straightforward, but Eggers could have done a lot more to push his actions beyond the basic need to kill his father’s murderer, especially when he learns quite a few things about the past he had not known before. To that end, The Northman feels like it barely scratches the surface of its story, leaving the audience with crumbs rather than a full feast. The use of Norse mythology is excellent, however, often unnerving and striking at once. Mysticism is employed to both startle and aid Amleth in his revenge, which infuses the film with a tremendous amount of excitement and intrigue each time. Visually, The Northman is stunning, with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke boosting the film’s color palette with variations on light, shadow, and striking gray tones that inform and shape each scene, as well as Amleth’s journey throughout. There is a gruesome ruthlessness to everything, with Eggers going all out in the brutality of it all. The battle scenes are well-choreographed, with the village takeover especially being a standout as the camera tracks the chaos and Amleth’s own movements without losing sight of the sheer violence and heartbreak of the moment. It is bloody and filled with rage, something which keeps the momentum of the film from plummeting.

Alexander Skarsgård really leans into playing Amleth like a beast who is let loose on his prey. His eyes are set, watching Fjölnir, Amleth’s uncle, with an intensity that lingers and never dies. The actor is certainly passionate in the role, though there could have been a bit more done to elevate the emotional aspects of his plight. Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún has a couple of moments that fully allow her character to take shape and Kidman excellently plays them exceptionally well. From Claes Bang to Anya Taylor-Joy, the cast gives all they have to make their characters fully realized people the audience can understand and even sympathize with on occasion. If there’s one thing that could have been given a boost, it’s the romance between Skarsgård’s Amleth and Taylor-Joy’s Olga, which is half-baked at best. While The Northman has a lot to offer and is quite beautiful and masterful in its execution, there is something missing. The film begins to meander a bit in the middle before getting back on track and the lack of additional character development — anything that would have given the film more depth — prevents The Northman from reaching its full potential. By the end of it all, audiences might find they wanted a bit more from the story, even as they were brought into the passion and violence of Amleth’s vengeance so viscerally.

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