Film Review: The Northman

 

While not dispositive as to a movie’s quality, when talking about historical dramas it’s interesting to ask whether the film’s subjects would appreciate their on-screen portrayal. Rather than being a movie vikings would enjoy, The Northman is better described as a movie vikings would make. It is not a straight telling of the lives of northern Europeans during the Viking Age, but a tale molded by their aspirations, their ideals, and untouched by modern mores. In an early scene, our hero Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) raids a Slav village after which the surviving women and children are rounded up to be made slaves or hoarded into a shack and burned alive. This is not a world of universalist Christian morality. It is a world of honor, social rank, and birthright.

At the beginning of the film, young Amleth (Oscar Novak) is twelve, old enough to be initiated as a man and successor to his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). When his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills Aurvandill, Amleth narrowly escapes the same fate and vows revenge. He is taken in by some passing vikings and raised to be a berserker. After the aforementioned raid, he gets wind that Fjölnir has been exiled to Iceland. He brands himself like a slave and boards a slaveship headed to Iceland. On the ship, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose cunning will be of great help in exacting his vengeance.

A he-witch (Ingvar Sigurðsson) instructs him to obtain a magical sword. Amleth’s duel against the animated corpse guarding the sword is one that will go down in cinema history. It is not alone as far as rousing action scenes. With his previous two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers built a reputation for ponderous movies that are near impenetrable for general audiences. The Northman, while an Eggers film to the bone, fares better chances with the moviegoing public. The action is visceral, expertly choreographed, and frequent enough to stave off boredom for more impatient viewers.

These scenes don’t threaten Eggers’ auteur status; they enhance it. Historical combat buffs will be pleased by their brevity. These aren’t bloated, over-choreographed Hollywood action scenes. The laws of physics aren’t completely abandoned. Film snobs such as myself often complain about modern action movies not clearly conveying the actors and their positions relative to each other throughout a fight. Eggers seemingly disregards this, having the camera move so Amleth or his enemies often disappear out of frame. This creates tension as you don’t know when an attack will come from off-screen. This was a deliberate artistic decision, and it took careful planning unlike those terrible scenes that use quick cuts and frantic editing to disguise nonsensical or boring action.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) during a berserker raid.

The violence is brutal. There’s dismemberment, mutilation, and disemboweling. The most gruesome images are seen in wide shots, silhouette, or for just long enough to convince you you’ve seen more gore than you actually have. The music is also brutal. Eggers says they only used instruments from the period. We may know what instruments vikings had, but we can only guess what their music sounded like. The music in the movie is driven by percussion, a war march of thundering drums and throat singing. It fits the movie’s martial obsessions and, like the main character, its singular focus is admirable, though no one is going to hum the score leaving the theater.

The Northman returns to the color grading seen in The Witch, i.e. just shy of monochrome. Eggers insists on only using period-accurate light sources, so night scenes are limited to moonlight and faces bathed in orange. Day scenes are dominated by steely blue tones. You have to wonder why bother with color at all. The film would’ve looked gorgeous in black and white like The Lighthouse. At least the cinematography leaves nothing to be desired. DP Jarin Blaschke beautifully captures the natural world that so shaped these people’s lives from the verdant forests to the bleak vastness of the sea. His handling of action scenes is no less competent, with many impressive long takes (astute viewers may be able to spot the hidden edits). One midnight fight scene sees combatants materializing in and out of the light of the bonfires pockmarking a field.

A valkyrie (Ineta Sliuzaite). Excavated skulls show some vikings filed a groove into the front of their teeth.

All the painstaking work put into historical accuracy from the costumes to the rituals would be a waste were the performances not equally convincing. Every cast member, no matter how minor their part, are right at place as these people whose beliefs and experiences are so alien to our own, but who are people nonetheless. Alexander Skarsgård, who got jacked for the role, doesn’t merely look powerful, he moves through the movie like a force of nature. It’s mythic, yet Skarsgård retains that element of humanity that makes Amleth compelling to modern audiences and relatable to the people who created and passed down his legend. Though most of the cast looks like Nocturno Culto, we’re treated to a trio of cinema’s odder faces: Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Björk, though Björk has an elaborate headdress with seashells hanging over her eyes so you probably wouldn’t recognize her.

With how meticulously crafted the rest of the film is, it’s unfortunate that when The Northman falters in its final moments. The climactic battle has the set dressing of an epic duel, but the choreography pales to every previous scene. It concludes with lots of screaming, if that’s your thing. This sours but does not ruin the movie. Eggers was given a huge budget ($70 million from most reports), made a movie that looks like it, and retained his directorial voice. It is not as mesmerizing as the spiral into madness that is The Lighthouse, though I prefer it over The Witch (I’m in the minority and did not like that movie and I refuse to use its stylistic spelling). Will word of mouth elevate The Northman to the success of films like Gladiator and Braveheart? I hope so.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Well, damn, Cat, you’re a stone-cold good film reviewer. Anyone who ever, even slightly, doubted your ability to reach and persuade a mainstream audience needs only to see this critique. I’m sold, and this isn’t even my kind of movie. 

    Time has a way of sneaking up. I still vaguely think of Eggers as a new young director but he’s 38, AFAIK, the age Kubrick was when he was making 2001.  

    • #1
  2. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    The Girlie Show: Rather than being a movie vikings would enjoy, The Northman is better described as a movie vikings would make.

    The Girlie Show: Eggers says they only used instruments from the period. We may know what instruments vikings had, but we can only guess what their music sounded like.

    What I’m hearing is that real vikings would have made a movie with more death metal in it.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The Girlie Show: The most gruesome images are seen in wide shots, silhouette, or for just long enough to convince you you’ve seen more gore than you actually have.

    “Old school” to put it into a two word phrase. This is not a criticism. It is praise. The tendency towards ever more graphic combat scenes has long ago become a special effects creep show. Just as in the length of women’s dresses, leaving something to the imagination can be even more effective.

    • #3
  4. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator
    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker
    @AmySchley

    It does sound like this replicates the aspect of “The Witch” I found most enjoyable — that the characters are driven by their own historically based culture, and aren’t just modern people in costume. That would be a welcome change from schlock like “Vikings” or even “The Last Kingdom” which have no understand of Viking morality and belief. (Anyone who calls Valhalla “Viking Heaven” fundamentally misunderstands Norse cosmology and eschatology.)

    • #4
  5. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    I almost want to watch this and maybe when I get older, I will. You are a great reviewer but I know our tastes are at odds. That might just be where I am in life. Lighthearted, daily living comedy is more my thing these days. I’m not in a place to appreciate this, though I want to see it.

    • #5
  6. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    My wife and I have plans to see this movie, and then you mentioned The Lighthouse (one of the worst movies I’ve seen over the past few years). We will still see it I suspect, but I’m less sanguine about liking it now. 

    • #6
  7. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    This great review has left me intrigued.  I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction and I think this might fit as a nice cinematic complement.

    • #7
  8. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    I am not terribly interested in this movie, but it is a good review.  I just know I have vastly different tastes than Cat.

    • #8
  9. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Well, damn, Cat, you’re a stone-cold good film reviewer. Anyone who ever, even slightly, doubted your ability to reach and persuade a mainstream audience needs only to see this critique. I’m sold, and this isn’t even my kind of movie.

    Thanks Gary. The real test is if I can persuade readers to see the arthouse movies, the ones that don’t play widely. I’ll give it a crack.

    Time has a way of sneaking up. I still vaguely think of Eggers as a new young director but he’s 38, AFAIK, the age Kubrick was when he was making 2001.

    Unrelated to the post, but since you bring up Kubrick, I recently learned that he had a 400 day film shoot for Eyes Wide Shut, which is insane.

    • #9
  10. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Percival (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show: The most gruesome images are seen in wide shots, silhouette, or for just long enough to convince you you’ve seen more gore than you actually have.

    “Old school” to put it into a two word phrase. This is not a criticism. It is praise. The tendency towards ever more graphic combat scenes has long ago become a special effects creep show. Just as in the length of women’s dresses, leaving something to the imagination can be even more effective.

    Reminds me of Pulp Fiction. That movie is a lot less violent than people remember. The fact they remember it that way shows Tarantino was effective with the way he shot/edited it.

    • #10
  11. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator
    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker
    @AmySchley

    Not to derail the thread too much, but I’m curious what you didn’t like about “The Witch.” I thought it was quite good, though it would have been better if we had not seen the witch and instead were left wondering whether Thomasin was the witch. Mess with our sympathies and perceptions, particularly since the story hints at unreliable narrators with the discovery that their grain has argot rot.

    Granted, I’m not a horror fan; I’m more into historical drama and psychological thriller. 

    • #11
  12. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    It does sound like this replicates the aspect of “The Witch” I found most enjoyable — that the characters are driven by their own historically based culture, and aren’t just modern people in costume. That would be a welcome change from schlock like “Vikings” or even “The Last Kingdom” which have no understand of Viking morality and belief. (Anyone who calls Valhalla “Viking Heaven” fundamentally misunderstands Norse cosmology and eschatology.)

    It really felt like peeking into a wholly unfamiliar culture. If it actually reflects real Norse culture, I’ll let people more educated on the subject debate. I do know the historical record is a lot less clear than with many other cultures so inevitably liberties had to be made.

    • #12
  13. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    My wife and I have plans to see this movie, and then you mentioned The Lighthouse (one of the worst movies I’ve seen over the past few years). We will still see it I suspect, but I’m less sanguine about liking it now.

    Don’t worry. While I wouldn’t classify The Northman as conventional, it’s far more conventional than The Lighthouse. And there’s at least some cool sword fights if the rest of the movie doesn’t speak to you.

    • #13
  14. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    Not to derail the thread too much, but I’m curious what you didn’t like about “The Witch.” I thought it was quite good, though it would have been better if we had not seen the witch and instead were left wondering whether Thomasin was the witch. Mess with our sympathies and perceptions, particularly since the story hints at unreliable narrators with the discovery that their grain has argot rot.

    Granted, I’m not a horror fan; I’m more into historical drama and psychological thriller.

    It’s been some years seen I’ve seen The Witch, but I’ll try to remember best I can. I think you describe the main problem which is that the witch is revealed so soon. It should have strung along the viewer for longer, leaving us in mystery. I also thought the grey tone was overbearing and like the pace, felt perfunctory, I guess. “This is a serious movie so it has to be muted and glacial.”

    I didn’t hate it. It’s not unwatchable. The dialog, which Eggers wrote after extensive reading into diaries from the time period, is superb. Anyone who’s attempted to write characters who use “thee” and “thou” knows how difficult it is to pull off antiquated dialog.

    • #14
  15. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Eggers is most definitely not for everyone, but I got something from both The Witch and The Lighthouse. You better bet I’m watching his Viking movie.

    • #15
  16. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    LC (View Comment):

    Eggers is most definitely not for everyone, but I got something from both The Witch and The Lighthouse. You better bet I’m watching his Viking movie.

    I’m excited to hear what you think of it.

    • #16
  17. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    • #17
  18. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    • #18
  19. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    • #19
  20. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I didn’t realize the sub-Beacon still exists. I haven’t listened to it since it absconded from Ricochet.  The hosts are a bunch of rabid Never-Trumpers, as I recall.

    • #20
  21. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Taras (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I didn’t realize the sub-Beacon still exists. I haven’t listened to it since it absconded from Ricochet. The hosts are a bunch of rabid Never-Trumpers, as I recall.

    Not sure about ALL of them, but unlike GLoP, they rarely talk about that.

    • #21
  22. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    My wife and I have plans to see this movie, and then you mentioned The Lighthouse (one of the worst movies I’ve seen over the past few years). We will still see it I suspect, but I’m less sanguine about liking it now.

    Don’t worry. While I wouldn’t classify The Northman as conventional, it’s far more conventional than The Lighthouse. And there’s at least some cool sword fights if the rest of the movie doesn’t speak to you.

    The Lighthouse represents one of the very few times I asked for, and got, my money back from a theater.

    I stumbled upon another “realistic” retelling of Hamlet in streaming.  It’s a low budget film starring a teenage Christian Bale and an even younger Kate Beckinsale.  Happily they got some grownup actresses for the obligatory naked sauna sequence.

    • #22
  23. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Taras (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    My wife and I have plans to see this movie, and then you mentioned The Lighthouse (one of the worst movies I’ve seen over the past few years). We will still see it I suspect, but I’m less sanguine about liking it now.

    Don’t worry. While I wouldn’t classify The Northman as conventional, it’s far more conventional than The Lighthouse. And there’s at least some cool sword fights if the rest of the movie doesn’t speak to you.

    The Lighthouse represents one of the very few times I asked for, and got, my money back from a theater.

    I stumbled upon another “realistic” retelling of Hamlet in streaming. It’s a low budget film starring a teenage Christian Bale and an even younger Kate Beckinsale. Happily they got some grownup actresses for the obligatory naked sauna sequence.

    Teenage?  Kate would have been 21 for that movie, and Christian Bale was 20.

    That said, my favorite Kate Beckinsale movie is “Nothing But The Truth,” talk about a gut-punch at the end!

    • #23
  24. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    • #24
  25. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Taras (View Comment):

    I stumbled upon another “realistic” retelling of Hamlet in streaming. It’s a low budget film starring a teenage Christian Bale and an even younger Kate Beckinsale. Happily they got some grownup actresses for the obligatory naked sauna sequence.

    Prince of Jutland, aka Royal Deceit. I happened upon that when writing my review. Was it good?

    • #25
  26. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    Their movie reviews can be both informative and entertaining.  Especially when “Gene Shalit” drops by.  :-)

    • #26
  27. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    I listen to Bunch on Fridays when he does reviews for Hugh Hewitt. He isn’t always good with th his reviews, but he often has a unique view of the film which I like. 

    • #27
  28. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    I listen to Bunch on Fridays when he does reviews for Hugh Hewitt. He isn’t always good with th his reviews, but he often has a unique view of the film which I like.

    I thought “Emmett of the Unblinking Eye” was better, but that’s been a while.

    • #28
  29. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    I listen to Bunch on Fridays when he does reviews for Hugh Hewitt. He isn’t always good with th his reviews, but he often has a unique view of the film which I like.

    I thought “Emmett of the Unblinking Eye” was better, but that’s been a while.

    Yeah, he was, and that’s been a REALLY long time. 

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    The Girlie Show (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    This week’s new “episode” of the Sub-Beacon podcast is discussing The Northman.

    I’ve never listened to that podcast. I rarely listen to podcasts.

    Co-hosts include movie reviewer/critic Sonny Bunch.

    I’m aware of what it is; I just haven’t listened to it.

    I listen to Bunch on Fridays when he does reviews for Hugh Hewitt. He isn’t always good with th his reviews, but he often has a unique view of the film which I like.

    I thought “Emmett of the Unblinking Eye” was better, but that’s been a while.

    Yeah, he was, and that’s been a REALLY long time.

    Indeed.  And I stopped paying for Hugh’s show some time ago too, because for $5/month (at first – might be more now) all you got was his show, and then the “message boards” stopped working and apparently nobody had any interest in fixing it.  I also had little patience for talk of Ohio, and football, and Ohio football, and baseball, and Ohio baseball…  Hugh is also one of those past DC people who think their government experiences from 40 years ago still have relevance.

    • #30
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