The Northman review: A stunning, savage saga
James R | On 22, May 2022
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Björk
I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir. That’s the motto recited over and over by Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) in The Northman, a driving force that almost becomes spell-like in its intense, elemental power. This quest for vengeance is the engine fuelling the whole film, as we follow Amleth from a young boy to a grown man, after his father (Ethan Hawke) has been betrayed by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), taken for Fjölnir’s wife.
We watch Amleth as his watches that betrayal, goes through a coming-of-age ritual, swims across an ocean, howls like a wolf, brands himself to hide among slaves, fights an undead warrior and has visions of Björk as a sinister seer. If, by this point, you haven’t guessed you’re watching a Robert Eggers film, a fight scene amid molten lava and glimpses of valkyries soaring through the sky certainly give it away.
That tension between a straightforward, commercial blockbuster and, well, a Robert Eggers film is at the heart of what makes The Northman such a dazzling watch. The script, by Eggers and Sjón, is precariously pitched between an accessible thriller and an arthouse odyssey, and Eggers doesn’t hold back. Vivid, trippy flourishes are accompanied by stunningly composed set pieces, with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke turning lush Icelandic backdrops into monochrome nightscapes with colourful bursts of fire, blood and moonlight. The red stuff isn’t skimped on either, with each encounter more relentless than the next, right down to one character being identified by their missing facial part.
The scale of the endeavour is jaw-dropping in itself, with expansive sets that include three whole villages as well as viking boats. The cast, meanwhile, are game to fill the scale with emotional scope, from Nicole Kidman’s fierce, resilient ruler to Claes Bang’s imperious, intimidating villain, while Anya Taylor-Joy is engrossingly intense as witch Olga and Willem Dafoe steals several scenes with a cackling creepiness.
The result sits somewhere between Valhalla Rising, Noah and The Green Knight, but with a bombastic brutality that’s all its own. At the heart of it all is Alexander Skarsgård, who runs and roars with an animalistic ferocity, as his determination to wreak revenge is so all-encompassing that it ultimately becomes hollow. A stunning, savage saga.