CINEMA REVIEW: THE NORTHMAN (2022)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by: Sjón Eggers & Robert Eggers
Based on: The Legend of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus
Produced by: Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Arnon Milchan
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe, etc.
Cinematography Jarin Blaschke
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Robert Eggers is a formidable cinematic talent. His dark visions of folklore and historical fable are steeped in impressive research and a striking attention to detail within his work. Artistically and thematically speaking, Eggers is a major talent, however, one could argue his narratives deny clarity preferring hazy ambiguity. His debut film The Witch (2015) is an arthouse classic, but I just did not connect with the characters, despite the filthy realistic strangeness. His follow-up, The Lighthouse (2019), is a claustrophobic, black-hearted and dirty descent into a watery hell. Both are bravura low-budget films which created two distinct periods. In both films you can almost feel the plague and scurvy in your mouth, presented as they are with such earthy authenticity.
Thus, unsurprisingly, Robert Eggers latest film is NOT a romantic comedy. The Northman (2022) is another obsessively researched and realised historical drama. But because of the reported $70 million budget, his vision of Vikings and blood and revenge and muscle and familial treason and murder screams epic, more epic and even more EPIC! Eggers script and story is inspired by the historical myth, The Legend of Amleth, a narrative which in turn is said to have influenced none other than the quite well known play, Hamlet. Here Eggers has a solid structure for the thunderous battles and mystical manifestations on show. Our hero, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), finds his father, the King (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his uncle (Claes Bang), while he is a boy. Fleeing his village he grows into a scary, ripped and roaring Viking warrior who has never even seen a carbohydrate. A hunger for bread and a desire for revenge on his uncle propels the story powerfully. Intense Amleth must locate his kidnapped mother (Nicole Kidman) and smash the man who did his family wrong.
Eggers is a brilliant film director. In Alexander Skarsgård he also has a battering ram of a physical specimen leading the charge from deathly pillage to bloody battle to fiery hand-to-combat with impressive purpose and power. Amidst the vengeance-fuelled fight sequences and Amleth’s confrontations with the seers and magicians of the land, his journey also encompasses love and marriage to Olga of the Birch Forest, a Slavic sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy). While Skarsgård’s character is more muscle than charisma, Taylor-Joy breathes ethereal and sensual life into the middle act. Their collaboration battling against enforced slavery gives us something to root for above the familiar revenge plot. Having said that, Amleth is not the easiest of characters to warm to. Despite Eggers genius and Skarsgård’s brutalism I wondered if I really cared about his quest.
I would argue that this story was done far more successfully from an emotional perspective by Ridley Scott’s awesome Roman epic, Gladiator (2000). Russell Crowe was just phenomenal as Maximus and his performance was one of magnetic emotion and charismatic depth. That film had amazing action married to integral character development. However, there is a violent momentum to The Northman (2022), with Amleth’s quest charging like a juggernaut toward the jugular of his foes. Eggers’ image and colour system of Viking costumes, iconography, weaponry, plus human, godly and ungodly beings provide the depth when the characterisation feels thin. And wow, does he know how to stage a battle. Bones crunch, teeth crack, blood bursts and weapons sever, scorch and devastate. As the fire burns in Amleth’s heart and across the landscape, The Northman (2022) rages from the cinema screen with dominant visual ascendancy.