For The Northman, co-writer/director Robert Eggers transports audiences to the year 895 AD for his epic Viking tale fueled by vengeance, betrayal, and blood. At the start, we’re introduced to King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), who is returning from battle and welcomed warmly by his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and his young son and heir to the throne, Amleth (played by Oscar Novak). After undergoing a rite of passage that helps young Amleth continue his journey towards adulthood, Aurvandil’s devious brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), decides to betray his family by mercilessly slaughtering his brother and kidnapping Queen Gudrún as a means of claiming her as his own. Amleth manages to escape before Fjölnir’s henchmen can kill him, and as the young man leaves everything and everyone he knows behind, Amleth makes a promise to himself that one day he will avenge his father’s murder and rescue his mother from the clutches of his double-crossing uncle.
The Northman then picks up several decades later with Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård), who has changed his identity and now works as a Viking raider, pillaging small communities alongside a group of ne’er-do-well warriors. Fate comes calling one night when Amleth is reminded of his promise and he soon sets out to infiltrate his uncle’s village with the help of an enslaved woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Amleth sets out to right these wrongs that have robbed him of his family and his rightful place as king.
If that seems like a lot of story, that’s really only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in The Northman, as Eggers and co-writer Sjón (who is a renowned Icelandic poet, novelist, and screenwriter) do a brilliant job of creating this timeless yarn that meticulously weaves together this grandiose Viking mythology that I found to be endlessly fascinating to watch as it unfolds. There are definitely elements of Hamlet that have been infused into The Northman, which is probably another reason why I enjoyed it as much as I did. What’s amazing, though, is that Eggers’ latest clocks in at around 135 minutes, but there isn’t a single moment wasted here, with the filmmaker setting the pace early on in the film, and he never lets up from there.
That’s not to say that The Northman is just one action-packed set piece after another (there is definitely PLENTY of action, for sure), as the script from Sjón and Eggers makes sure to give us some truly stunning and genuinely moving character-driven moments here to balance out all the brutality and cinematic chaos that is unleashed throughout The Northman. Something else that I really loved about the way The Northman was structured was that it felt like the story of the film was split up into separate chapters, akin to reading a book, and there’s something about that kind of presentation that I find so dang immersive as a viewer.
While there are a lot of reasons to enjoy and appreciate the work Eggers puts into his movies, I think the two things that I appreciate the most is his dedication to authenticity and his total and complete commitment for creating cinematic experiences that never feel like they’re trying to cater to current trends. Between The Witch, The Lighthouse and now The Northman, it feels like Eggers has cemented his place as one of the most singular storytellers in modern-day Hollywood, and demonstrating that kind of audacity as a filmmaker is something that is very much worth celebrating. And while Eggers is deserving of every bit of praise sent his way for his work on The Northman, I think his entire cast and crew are deserving of endless accolades for their contributions here as well. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has created a visual masterpiece with The Northman, where it feels like you could pause the film at any given moment and have an image that would be worthy of hanging over your mantle.
The creations of production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir are absolutely jaw-dropping and do an amazing job of making you forget that you’re even watching a movie—their work just pulls you right into the mix of the story so effortlessly. Additionally, I absolutely loved the score of The Northman from Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan, and there were a few music cues that took me right back to the days when I used to religiously play Skyrim with my better half (we put over 500 hours into that game, no joke) that made me want to leap out of my seat from pure nerd-fueled giddiness.
For The Northman, Eggers has assembled a brilliant cast that all deliver top-notch performances. Of course, this is Skarsgård’s show, with his character, Amleth, in the driver’s seat from start to finish, and he is absolute perfection in this (I didn’t think his work in Big Little Lies could be topped, but here we are), wholly immersing himself into this world filled with pain and destruction and fueled by revenge. Kidman is damn good as usual (it totally didn’t dawn on me until I was about 30 minutes into this that The Northman was like a mini Big Little Lies reunion between the actress and Skarsgård), and I found Taylor-Joy’s performance to be completely mesmerizing as well. Claes Bang isn’t someone whose work I was familiar with coming into The Northman, but the Danish actor now officially has my full intention, and I’ll admit that the ’90s teen in me completely geeked out when Björk showed up as the seeress who reminds Amleth of his destiny.
As someone who revisits The Witch every October, and respects but doesn’t totally love The Lighthouse (it's amazingly crafted and has brilliant performances, but I don’t feel like I ever really need to watch it again), I can emphatically declare The Northman to be Robert Eggers’ masterpiece and an early contender for one of the best films to come out in 2022. It’s the kind of movie that I can’t believe actually exists in this day and age when so many cineplexes are inundated by projects based on existing IPs or sequels or even remakes (which I don’t really mind all that much, actually). The Northman feels like this beautifully impossible project in that regard, as it dares to deliver an epic that is unapologetically brutal, fearless, and audacious, and I hope that Eggers’ latest finds the audience it so richly deserves.
Movie Score: 5/5