THE NORTHMAN (REVIEW)
Dir. Robert Eggers
Reviewer. Dan Cook
Having already defined himself as one of the most exciting directors of our time with THE WITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE, Robert Eggers once again delivers yet another powerhouse of a film with ’The Northman’, a brutal Slavic saga of revenge and retribution that may not have set the box office aflame but I believe has the fate of becoming a modern action fantasy classic. Based on theologian Saxo Grammaticus’ 11th century retelling of an ancient Scandinavian legend which itself later served as the primary inspiration for Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece HAMLET, THE NORTHMAN tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgaard), a bloodthirsty Viking Prince who embarks on a violent quest for vengeance after his father the King (Ethan Hawke) is brutally assassinated by his usurping uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang).
Alexander Skarsgaard is absolutely terrific as the intimidating figure of Amleth, delivering a unyielding and aggressive performance that is as animalistic as it is human. Like his Shakespearean counterpart, Hamlet, Amleth is a character defined by his rage and director Eggers has few inhibitions in showing the horrific consequences of his hero’s unquenchable anger - heads are sliced off, limbs are severed, throats are slit and bodies are disembowelled in numerous maelstroms of murderous carnage that set the screen alight with blood and viscera. However, while these moments are indeed gruesome, they never detract from the emotionally raw story being told. Instead, they help to build on the emotional intensity of the narrative already established by the meticulously intimate direction and lusciously skewed cinematography as well as fortifying the murderous intentions of the central character.
Bearded, long haired, bloodied, gruff and with a torso you could grate cheese on, Skarsgaard completely disappears into his rabid performance and in my opinion, brings us his very best work to date.
The impressive cast which includes Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor Joy, Bjork and Willem Dafoe all do good work here, with each actor diving headfirst into the insane storytelling and purposefully melodramatic machinations of Eggers’ overwrought plot. Despite this however, amongst the grit, the grime and the gore, it is Nicole Kidman who ultimately steals the spotlight with a venomous performance as Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrun, a figure for whom we initially feel great sympathy but whose development leads to one of cinemas most effortlessly hateful characters. It’s a fabulously spiteful turn from the Academy Award winning actress that easily stands out as my favourite performance of hers since Park Chan-Wook’s 2013 demented psychosexual thriller STOKER.
Unlike his two previous movies which were eerie and claustrophobic, here Robert Eggers revels in wide, expansive locations and absolutely stunning natural vistas that really lend his gore-drenched tale a tangibly epic quality that so few fantasy features made in this detrimentally artificial era of filmmaking possess. Shot predominantly in the hills of Northern Ireland which seamlessly stand in for the icy plains of Iceland, THE NORTHMAN is a consistently beautiful viewing experience that boasts some of the most impressive cinematography of any recent release, with DOP Jarin Blaschke (who deservedly earned an Oscar nod for his extraordinary monochrome work on THE LIGHTHOUSE) using the spectacular environments as well as unusual yet strangely suitable colour, tinting and shadow choices to create a genuinely breath-taking visual extravaganza the likes of which are rarely seen.
Underpinning it all is Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s groaning orchestrations which range from melodic, heart-breaking cellos to haunting, almost nightmarish drones which seem to emanate from the volcanic soil itself, as if the ground beneath our characters feet is decrying the insane, senseless slaughter taking place on its harmonious surface. Indeed, the elements have consistently played a big role in establishing the tone of Robert Eggers films and THE NORTHMAN may be his most distinctly elemental movie to date - with the quartet of earth, fire, wind and water all playing a key role in the ultimate fate of our damaged antihero.
All at once shocking, absurd, visceral, funny, awe-inspiring and utterly unforgettable, THE NORTHMAN currently stands as one of, if not the finest cinematic achievement of 2022. At a time when multiplexes are regularly stuffed with CGI-laden blockbusters that may look dazzling but provide little in the way of intellectual stimulation, it is highly refreshing to see a major studio bet $90m on a project as undeniably weird and as unapologetically idiosyncratic as THE NORTHMAN, even if it doesn’t prove to be the most profitable of ventures. With three fantastically unique movies under his belt, Robert Eggers proves yet again to be one the silver screen’s most formidably daring talents and I await with fevered impatience to see if his long-gestated adaptation of F.W Murnau’s immortal vampire classic NOSFERATU manages to escape from the shadows very soon.