Movie Review: The Northman
The Northman is about revenge. Young prince Amleth witnesses the murder of his father and capture of his mother and he vows revenge on his uncle who perpetrated the crimes. His hate fuels him for decades until he is a prime fighting machine and ready to fulfill his promises to his parents. Gods and fate intertwine to create an epic tale. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gustav Lindh, Elliott Rose, Björk, and Willem Dafoe. The film is written by Sjón and Robert Eggers and directed by Eggers.
Robert Eggers is a filmmaker with a distinct vision. He brings a craftsman's approach to his films, building a world for his characters to inhabit that is unlike anything we have seen. With The Northman ,and an obviously bigger budget than his previous two outings, Eggers brings his sensibilities to epic filmmaking. He, with the help of his writing partner Sjón, is able to craft a unique vision of magic, myth, and brutality that feels original.
The story itself is a bit common. It is a classic hero's journey from tragedy to triumph. The story hits most of the beats of any story like it. Though, what makes it unique are the characterizations. Our hero (Alexander Skarsgård) is barely that. He's a bundle of hatred, anger, and power. He fights without emotion, he kills men indiscriminately, and he's driven only toward his end goal with no plans after he's done it. He has no nobler intentions than to rid the world of what he perceives as a great evil. He's raw and powerful.
The female characters who are often wholly victims in a film like this, are written with much more depth than is typical. Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a survivor. She understands she's meant for more and she fights, scraps, and deceives to survive. Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) herself is also a survivor, but her story evolves beyond even that trope.
There is a turn in the film. As Amleth's night campaign against Fjölnir's (Claes Bang) forces ramps up, he reveals himself to his mother, Queen Gudrún, but that's when the rug is ripped out from under us and from Amleth as well. He believed entirely, and based his life, in the black and white truth, but his truth is not the real truth. In that turn, Nicole Kidman suddenly does as she's always done and she owns the scene. She takes the film away with her and changes the idea of fate, destiny, and what it is all really for.
Like in many of the scenes in the film, Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to do most of that scene of the turn in a continuous take. They have staged many beautiful, complicated, brutal takes that are continuous. The best of these comes as Amleth's band of raiders sneaks up on a stronghold in the forest and just as the people in the stronghold sound the alarm, the raiders attack with a berserker fury. They run across a glen, over a wall, into the stronghold, killing, slashing and burning as they go. It's an incredible example of the power of these types of scenes and the power of a continuous sequence.
The Northman is a film that is magical in its myth-making and grandiose in its practical genius. You feel as if the sets exist and that the world is real. This world, while slightly derivative in story structure, is a unique, original concept that will blow you away. This is the type of story a big screen was meant to show and tell. See it on the biggest screen you can.