In Robert Eggers’ cold-blooded medieval vengeance tale, The Northman, The American director and his Icelandic co-writer, poet Sjón, show a hard-fought victory in a harsh setting. A dramatic sameness eventually diminishes the film’s impact.
There aren’t many Viking movies since the time and locale limit the format to two things: sailing and plundering. The Northman will satisfy even the most diehard action aficionados. To be fair, Prince Amleth’s father’s murder has a highbrow component, as William Shakespeare would eventually convert him into Hamlet.
The Witch (2015), set in 1630s New England, and The Lighthouse (2019), a stark black-and-white two-hander set on the Northeastern coast in the 1890s, will be familiar to Eggers’ followers.
Both of these short films have an uncomfortable blend of oddity and passion. These preludes to the new work, which draws on documented 12th-century historical episodes but focuses on constructing a convincingly harsh portrayal of a savagely violent existence that neither government nor religion could regulate.
However, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is soon murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who saves Queen Gudrun but takes her away.
After 20 years, Amleth (the gorgeous and buff Alexander Skarsgard) is a deadly Viking raider. A seeress (Björk) tells him to kill his uncle to avenge his father. So a new campaign of violence begins.
From the start, it’s evident Eggers wants his film to be violent. There are many hazardous animals roaming the land, but none are as lethal and deceitful as humans.
Nonetheless, The Northman is a creative rarity. In spite of the film’s color, it’s remembered in black and white. Depending on the scene’s importance and aim, Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke modify the visual treatment in a variety of ways that require numerous viewings to fully comprehend.
More complicated and demanding than that, lengthy takes involve hand-held shots of vast amounts of chaotic action involving large numbers of people, animals, weapons, and unavoidable accidental events that rely on precision for a dramatic impact. The immersive, deep-dive methodology produces heightened visceral reactions to regular violence.
The technical advancements here are modern, allowing for far greater camera movement than in the past. The eerie tone and stark visuals are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s notorious 1960 rape film The Virgin Spring.
The film’s military-like tempo drags between victory, especially in the final act. In this way, it allows creative brains like Eggers’ to imaginatively fill in the voids.
The stage design by Craig Lathrop and costumes by Linda Muir produce important impacts.
The Northman hits theatres on April 22.