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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.
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.
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.Published in