Writer/director Robert Eggers presents his biggest film yet, taking on an expansive narrative with a large ensemble, while still delivering the breathtaking beauty and heavily thematic storytelling we expect from the artistic filmmaker.
The Northman is an epic in every sense of the word, just not in the vein most people would be expecting. When you merge the tension of a Shakespearean tragedy, the infinite depth of of Norse folklore and the sheer brutality of a Viking revenge thriller – you get The Northman. Robert Eggers has crafted something truly unique, something with the scope of a large-scale fantasy epic but the intricate detail of an indie psychological thriller. The way he manages to create a consistent balance between both genres is a sign of a great director who knows how to transform his vision from an idea into reality. There is a tonne of depth to this film with so many avenues to discuss, but I’ll kick off by touching on the visuals – the element that caught my attention from the opening frame and had me hooked til the end.
Robert Eggers has once again teamed up with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the Oscar-nominated DoP who also lent his talents to The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). With this pairing, one thing you should expect to see is shot after shot of breathtaking cinematography, something that has become a staple of Eggers’ films. His attention to detail and focus on crafting every single shot with a beautiful artistic touch is quite remarkable, elevating those scenes even further than the story takes them. Utilising a very neutral and flat colour palette throughout, Eggers and Blaschke still manage to make environments pop through the use of sweeping backdrops, symmetry and intense lighting in interior scenes. It’s still early days, but I can definitely see The Northman being nominated for achievements in cinematography at the next Oscars. The big giveaway being that if you skip to any point in this movie, you’ll be met by a shot that’s just as stunning as the last.
On to the narrative, which I mentioned sits well within being a Shakespearean tragedy masked by a Viking revenge thriller, with undertones of supernatural folklore spread throughout. At surface level, it’s an intense, thrilling and action-packed revenge story that hits the key themes and story beats you’d expect to see. It’s a subgenre that hasn’t evolved much over the years, which is why it’s the other elements Eggers has weaved in that really heighten this cinematic experience beyond just being great. The abstract storytelling elements, including strange sequences of mystical visuals, artistic dreams and near-supernatural occurrences, are what take this journey to the next level. Many viewers looking for something a little more straightforward will be turned off by these more heightened story beats, but I love a hint of the obscure when it helps with delving a little deeper into a character’s psyche and what’s driving their revenge journey decision making (besides the obvious).
In true Eggers style, the film moves at a strikingly slow pace. At 2 hours and 17 minutes long, Eggers is playing the long game when it comes to telling this revenge story and fleshing out our lead character, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). I love the decision to really draw out the narrative since it gives you time to soak in the key moments, and allows the desperation and insanity of Amleth’s journey rise to a boiling point. The tension and emotional weight that’s built up throughout the film all comes to a head in what is an explosive climax filled with rage and chaos, closing out an exceptional story in fine fashion. As a side note, I will admit Eggers may have stretched some of the second-act downtime out a little too long, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not a major gripe. I need to take a moment to highlight the intense brutality of the film – really adding to the historical authenticity and making you feel like you’re back in the 10th century. Bloody, brutal and gritty, the action sequences are top notch – enhancing the tension and breaking up the slower moments.
Performance-wise, the all-star cast is brilliant across the board. Alexander Skarsgård leads the pack with a raw, riveting performance in which he completely transforms into a revenge-driven beast. He taps into the emotional side of the character, while also selling the sheer anger and rage that’s brewing. He has great chemistry alongside Anya Taylor-Joy who continues to shine with a performance that’s both powerful and subtle. She doesn’t have many an explosive moment, but she creates plenty of intrigue in her character. Claes Bang, who I loved in 2020’s Dracula miniseries, is strong as the villainous Fjölnir – a villain who you love to hate, and is also grounded enough to fit in the story. Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe also have their moments to shine and make an impact on the film, albeit in a limited capacity.
In the end, The Northman is most certainly not for everyone. If you’re going in hoping for a straight revenge thriller, you’ll walk away disappointed. Understanding that this is more of an indie film in nature, harnessing Robert Eggers’ signature style is key to ultimately getting the most out of this film. Visually breathtaking and somewhat abstract in its narrative style, this film is layered far more than most other revenge epics you’ve seen – leading to a unique experience like no other.