Title: The Northman (2022)
Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers, Sjón
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe
Robert Eggers’ Viking revenge drama is here, and it is… something. Brutal, honest, beautifully shot, and with a great cast, the story of young prince Amleth’s murderous revenge plot against his uncle often feels more like a two-hour and twenty minutes long Wardruna music video than anything else.
Which can be a bit much…
Let me start by saying this: My review of The Northman will be slightly different from what I usually write, and I’d forgive you for taking it with a grain of salt. I doubted whether even to review it at all; the whole thing felt too personal. Let me give you some context.
I’m Norwegian, and Viking stories and Norse myths are a big part of our culture, especially when growing up. Still, in general, Norwegians have a different view of their Viking history than our brothers and sister elsewhere in Scandinavia (there are some very specific reasons for this). And watching The Northman today, I was reminded of something the Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones, The Witcher) said in an interview I did with him in December.
As Norwegians, I feel like we’re not as proud of our Viking heritage as our neighboring countries. In Iceland for example, you will often hear stuff like “We are the REAL Vikings!” But here in Norway, at some point, it became something we didn’t want to talk about anymore, something politically incorrect, like we didn’t want to identify with “those barbarians.”-Kristofer Hivju
To make this even harder, my older brother is a well-known author and Viking fanatic here in Norway. His Jomsviking series of novels are among the best-sellers and has even inspired a board game about pillage and plunder. He’s also an eccentric, a prepper and a hard-core anti-vaxxer, which has somehow inspired over half a million people to follow him on his YouTube channel.
To be honest: I’m just so very tired of Vikings…
But surely, a film with (checking notes) Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe must be excellent by casting alone? One would think so, and the casting was, in fact, what drew me to the film in the first place. Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe are some of my favorite actors – too bad their roles are so small.
In The Northman, we are taken back to the height of the Viking age, more specifically in the last decades of the 9th Century. A Viking chieftain, King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), returns wounded to his holdings with loot and slaves. His wife, Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and young son, Prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), await him. Fearing that the wound might be his death of him before his son is old enough and thereby leaving the throne to his bastard brother (played by Claes Bang), the king takes him to a Norse manhood ritual with the tribe’s Seiðr (a kind of Viking shaman played by Willem Dafoe). But shortly after, the king is murdered by his brother, sending the young boy fleeing over the ocean.
These first parts of The Northman are amazing, with some especially good chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Oscar Novak. The ritual with the Willem Dafoe’s Seiðr and how the Norse myths are visualized are memorable. Despite my misgivings for most things Viking-related, I felt I was in very good hands with Robert Eggers. Too bad it didn’t last.
It is a story we have seen many times before. Years later, Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker onboard a Viking longship, plundering Russia for loot and slaves. After a successful and overly brutal raid on a village, Amleth hears that his uncle lost his kingdom and had to move to Iceland. Impersonating a slave, he jumps on board a slave ship heading there to seek his revenge. On the way, he meets the slave Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). The two fall in love and plot their revenge and plans to escape. She tells him that she can break men’s minds while he can break their bones. That’s nice.
As I mentioned at the start, The Northman is beautifully shot, with grand vistas and nature. The Norse myths, often seen through the fog of some mushroom-induced high, are also greatly visualized, with fate-spinning Norns, Odin’s ravens, Yggdrassil and the gates to Valhalla accompanied by a fantastic score and Icelandic chanting. It looks pretty, but the film often balances on the brink of being anachronistic, with certain scenes reminding me more of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla than Vikings.
But the beauty of The Northman‘s traditional revenge story is often shoved aside by the brutality of its violence. Too many scenes are overly violent just for the sake of it, which adds nothing to the story. And some scenes play the violence up to comedic proportions and cringe, like the Viking raid on the village in Russia, with berserkers growling, howling, drinking blood and torturing prisoners. Quite cringeworthy.
As I also said at the beginning of this review, I won’t blame you for taking my review of The Northman with a grain of salt. I’ve been fed up with the subject matter for many years, which might cloud my judgment regarding this film. I’m sure The Northman is an alright film from an otherwise great director (The Lighthouse and The Witch were both great!) I guess it just didn’t sit well with me.
I’m sure my brother will love it, though.