The Northman is a brutal and beautiful bit of mythic spectacle, but can still sometimes feel restrained despite its outsized production.
Gather round: it’s time for another of Robert Eggers’ immersive and slightly loopy historical/mythic dioramas, and this time out it’s The Northman, a tale of Viking revenge based loosely on Hamlet. What Eggers has delivered is a relatively epic and unsurprisingly ambitious exercise that’s loaded with some tremendous imagery, his trademark detail, and grisly violence, yet somehow feels unduly restrained.
Young prince Amleth and his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) welcome home King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) from his latest campaign of whatever it is Vikings campaign at. It’s not long though before Aurvandil’s bastard brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) decides he wants the throne for himself. He assassinates the king and kidnaps Gudrun. Amleth escapes, swearing his revenge, and years later (now played by Alexander Skarsgard) he’s become some kind of berserker raider running around pillaging villages and capturing slaves while in a wolf-trance. When he overhears that a clutch of slaves are set to be delivered to Fjolnir, who himself has now been stripped of his title and is merely a wealthy farmer, he disguises himself as one of the slaves and goes undercover for vengeance.
The Northman is absolutely chock-full of Eggers’ patented detail; everything glistens with authenticity, from the costumes to the boats to the architecture. The script, beyond its bare-bones origins in Shakespeare, draws heavily from Norse myth and is loaded with its iconography. It’s also absolutely gorgeous, gliding over all this production design with largely symmetrical compositions that, along with endless beautiful location work, make this a hypnodrome for the ages.
But it still feels like Eggers is holding back, if you can even imagine such a thing. What’s here is certainly a blast, but it’s perhaps not productively about anything; we’re in simple revenge-movie mode, despite the lush milieu. And that’s perfectly fine, but despite the gnarly violence of terrific action sequences — like an early village raid or a climactic swordfight on an exploding volcano or repeated images of a witch played by Bjork hissing poetry at Amleth — The Northman never really kicks over into the dementedly beautiful, shockingly violent phantasmagoria of, say, John Boorman’s Excalibur, by which it is very clearly inspired. Or for further comparison points, look to Nic Refn’s Valhalla Rising, which managed to be significantly weirder with about 1/15th of the budget and research. Still, virtually nobody else is getting a check written to commit their undeniable vision to the screen the way Eggers does, and even a somewhat muted version of that vision is worth celebrating.