Director Robert Eggers’ third feature film is a brutal revenge flick that relies on stunning visuals and epic fight scenes to compensate for a movie that feels like it’s playing it safe.
Distancing itself from becoming a psychological spectacle — a trait which Eggers highlights in his previous films — “The Northman” feels more conventional than artistic and lacks character development as a result.
“The Northman” takes its influence from a 13th century Norse-folk tale that became the inspiration for William Shakespearer’s “Hamlet.” Eggers’ take on the Danish prince sets his film in the Viking Age, where beastly physicality and images of horror are used to help retell this Nordic myth.
Young prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) seeks retribution after witnessing the murder of his father, King Aurvendail (Ethan Hawke), by his uncle Fjölnir (Clas Bang), in a power move to take over his kingdom. After escaping and promising himself that he will one day return to avenge his father, Amleth grows into a brutal warrior whose savagery is fueled by the memory of what was taken from him.
After a night of pillaging with his clan, Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk), a witch who prophesies that his revenge will soon take place. The next day, Amleth discovers that his uncle has given away his father’s kingdom and rules a small Icelandic village with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), who Fjölnir married after killing Aurvendail.
Hoping to fulfill his promise and save his mother, Amleth poses as a slave and stows away on a ship headed towards the village. On his journey he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), an enslaved mystic who is taken by Amleth’s thirst for vengeance and offers her help to carry out his plan for revenge.
Bleak, unrelenting and nihilistic, “The Northman'' is patient in its storytelling, but lacks enough momentum to carry it to the end. It focuses too much on the myths and fails to rejuvenate a commonly told story.
Ingrained with bone-crunching action and bloodshed, the film tries to draw historical accuracy with its depiction of Vikings.
Consulting with historians, Eggers strived to keep “The Northman” historically accurate to the film's setting by having the production pay close attention to detail in everything from the set designs, costumes and props, giving the film a marvelous authenticity that really stood out.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke — Eggers’ longtime collaborator — creates enough visual flair with his use of mystic imagery, making the film feel like a heavy-metal Viking music video.
The film’s cast is stacked with unimaginable talent. Skarsgård brings an energetic and raw performance where he’s fully enthralled in the Norse warrior persona. Not only does his hulky stature make him look intimidating, but Skarsgård’s embodiment of a man full of rage and violence is highlighted by the character’s savagery throughout the film.
Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing and does a great job leveling Skarsgård’s intensity. The two have a chemistry that’s palpable and sexy. Both actors are fully committed to their performances and clearly bring everything they have to the table.
The film’s true scene stealer, Kidman delivers a wickedly chaotic performance, managing to play both a nurturing and menacing queen whose ambitions outweigh her own son’s.
“The Northman'' owes its strengths to its amazing cast, beautiful cinematography and epic battle sequences. Yet, compared to Eggers’ last two films, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” this film feels too commercialized, too much on the spectacle of war and less on its characters.
With a runtime of two hours and 16 minutes this film could have trimmed off about 20 minutes, allowing its middle act to feel less weary and drawn-out. The film highlights Eggers’ imaginative flights and despite a great cast, this retelling of “Hamlet” comes off emotionally stagnant.
“The Northman'' is not a bad film, it has all the qualities you would want in a Viking epic and delivers a visceral experience with enough action and thrills to keep you entertained. However, for fans of the art house director looking for an immersive plunge into character development, the film falls short, leaving you with a bland and unsatisfying feeling at the end.