From the molten lake of fire at the gates of Hel to the frozen fjords of Norway comes a dark and visually compelling epic, The Northman, which was released into theaters this weekend. Birthed from the dark – and some would say twisted – mind of Robert Eggers, this expansive Norse epic is built upon ancient morality and mythology.
The Northman is not the tale the trailers led the audience to believe. It is far more visceral, violent, graphic, and compelling than could at first be supposed. The film follows Amleth, a prince driven from his home after his father’s betrayal and murder by his uncle Fjölnir. Fueled only by hate, this young prince builds himself into a frightening berserker warrior, intent on only one thing: the blood of his enemy, Fjölnir. Joined by a witch turned slave girl, Olga, the now-grown Amleth sets out to have his revenge on Fjölnir at any cost.
Many ideas, themes, and allegories are present within this expansive tale. However, none seems more poignant or at the forefront as much as Amleth’s struggle against the monster within. As a berserker, he was raised to be a monster, a fierce animal tearing at the world around him in search of blood. Can the beast be tamed? Should it be tamed? The writers show incredible restraint, choosing to subtlety follow this theme instead of spelling it out to the audience, delivering a deep and thought-provoking narrative that the audience must seek for themselves.
All this, combined with a stellar cast, incredible music, production design, and a level of talent in the writing that is altogether foreign in modern Hollywood, creates an epic tale for the ages. It should be heralded as equal to films like Braveheart, Gladiator, and Predator, solidifying its place among the greats. It has been many years since Hollywood has had the talent or even the will to deliver such a compelling, thought-provoking, and driven narrative.
Mysticism is at the very heart of this film, a thin line drawn between what is real and what is imagined. The Northman never makes a concrete statement on whether or not the gods of Norse mythology or the magic derived from them are true factors in this world. Regardless of their truth or tangibility, they leave an impact on the story by how they inspire the individual characters to be who they are.
The morality of The Northman is a complicated and nebulous concept; no character escapes the film unscathed from monstrous deeds, and no one is truly good. Yet they all have a spark of goodness that creates a level of complexity in the narrative. Modern society may look down on the barbaric nature of their culture at times, human sacrifices and blood oaths personifying the era, but many cannot help but respect them and their culture greatly for their foundational principles of honor, strength, and family. These principles, yet ancient and mired in horrific deeds, are principles from which our modern society could greatly benefit.
Beyond the stellar writing, all things technical about The Northman are near flawless. The cinematography and shot composition paint a beautiful picture of this almost magic-like world in which anything is possible. The editing and astonishing musical score also lend to the utter immersion that this film offers. Very few movies have ever been so well put together in every aspect.
It may seem like this film must be implicitly loved, but there are some minor flaws with which to take issue. All these issues are also so minor that none escape the realm of nitpickiness. A few scenes needed to breathe a little more, letting the impact of what had just occurred sink in before moving on to the next action or moment. Additionally, a few moments of levity do not quite land right, not fitting within the film’s general tone. These moments are few and far between, barely affecting the overall enjoyment of the film. Despite these minor flaws, The Northman can be called nothing but a technical masterpiece.
Anya Taylor-Joy brings to life the driven and spirited Russian witch Olga with a stellar performance. Anya is an incredibly talented actress with a diverse range of performances. She brings this incredible range to the role of Olga, seamlessly portraying a strong and independent woman who is Amleth’s equal. Olga is a perfect example of how Hollywood should write independent women, as opposed to characters like Captain Marvel. Olga has strength and perseverance while also capitalizing on her feminine wiles to be an intimidating foe to Fjölnir and his family.
Nicole Kidman brings a weariness and cunning to the role of Amleth’s mother, which makes it easy to understand her motivations and story. Her love of Amleth carries him through many trials in his formative years, driving him to come back and save her no matter what. Their relationship is at the very heart of the film, becoming the foundation for Amleth’s arc and motivations. Without a clear and compelling understanding of their relationship delivered through Kidman’s stellar performance, much of the film’s narrative would crumble, leaving little more than a mess of a story without her.
Claes Bang’s Fjölnir is one of the least developed characters in the film – at no fault of the actor – despite having quite a lot of screen time. Not all villains need to be complex or compelling, but there is something lacking from this character. It is not what can be characterized as a flaw; however, giving him a little more depth would not have gone amiss. His motivations are clear, yet not fleshed out. The film cannot decide whether or not he is a kind and compassionate father who defends his family with honor or a monster tearing out the tongues of those he hates. This conflict could have birthed the complexity needed to make him a compelling character, but without the attention needed to develop this dichotomy, it comes across as more inconsistent than intentional.
The entire supporting cast portrays their parts as intended, giving the world an incredible amount of depth and character. Despite being in the movie for only a few minutes, Ethan Hawke’s character leaves quite an impact on the story. Apart from being Amleth’s primary motivation throughout the story, Ethan manages to carve out his own presence in the story even after he’s gone.
William Dafoe is also only in the movie for a short time, but makes his mark on it. He doesn’t have much of a character to speak of beyond being just the fool, but he has a presence about him that’s all due to Dafoe’s incredible talent. The rest of the supporting cast does their jobs very well, doing exactly what is required of them to progress the story and motivate the other characters. However, none of them stands out to such a degree that they bear mentioning here.
Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth may come across as one-note and shallow to the casual viewer, but there is a depth to his performance that personifies his character. Skarsgård gives the audience a broken and driven man, consumed by the mantra that determines his fate: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” These few words drive this child into manhood and transform him into a beast. The rage and fury and violence churning within this character come across in subtle choices by Skarsgård, culminating in an incredibly compelling performance that solidifies him as one of the greats. Skarsgård plays this role to perfection, making the audience believe the pain, lack of free will, and deep love for his mother that define him.
The Northman is one of the best movies in years; it cannot be recommended enough. It deserves its place among the classics, but its niche nature and complex story may keep it from being solidified in the hearts of the audience.