The Northman puts me into a bit of a tangle. On the plus side, director Robert Eggers creates a relentlessly visceral revenge epic, set against a sweeping historical backdrop. The acting, the cinematography, and the set design are worthy of Oscars. At the same time, this is a dour, wearying experience. And taken over the span of 137 grueling minutes, it’s emotionally exhausting. I admired The Northman. It held me with the grip of its unvarnished execution and ambitious auteurism. But did I like it? More on that in just a bit.
Based on the legend of Amleth, by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, the story takes us back to the 9th century. King Aurvandill War-raven (Ethan Hawke) presides over the island kingdom of Hrafnsey, alongside Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Aurvandill is respected, and his conquests are many, but trouble brews on the horizon. The king senses this, and begins grooming Amleth (Oscar Novak), his pre-teen son, to take the throne in the event of his inevitable death. Turns out, that doom approacheth faster than even he could predict: Fjölnir (Claes Bang), Aurvandill’s power-thirsty brother, commits fratricide to make a play for crown. This makes Amleth the next target, but the boy flees before he can be killed. Duly victorious, Fjölnir sits on the throne, with Gudrún as his captive queen. Amleth rows to safety, feverishly vowing revenge.
Next, we cut to many years later. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has grown into a hulking, ferocious berserker. He and his command of nomadic warriors rape and pillage their way through the Scandinavian countryside. Time has transformed Amleth into a calloused, distant individual. He seems to take no joy in anything. After a particularly heinous battle, Amleth receives an irresistible piece of gossip: Fjölnir has been exiled from his kingdom, and now lives as a patrician farmer in the Icelandic hinterlands. Amleth senses the time for vengeance has never been riper. He poses as a captured slave, and boards a ship bound for Fjölnir’s estate.
Along this journey, Amleth forms an instant bond with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a headstrong captive. Their burgeoning relationship kindles his dormant humanity, but it also complicates his bloodlust. Should Amleth flee for the cause of happiness and contentment, or stay to satisfy his quest for revenge?
If you’re thinking this grungy Viking epic sounds a lot like Hamlet, you’d be spot-on. (The Bard was inspired by Saxo Grammaticus.) But where Shakespeare’s tragedy is a dark rumination on melancholia and despair, Eggers’ sword-and-board saga feels more emotionally and spiritually spartan. This is a raw, propulsive drama, replete with intense flashes of maiming and torture. It’s also charmless and cheerless, featuring hordes of shivering, miserable people, eeking out a grimy, doomed existence. The absolute most any of these poor souls could ever dream of is a life that doesn’t suck so completely. After damn near two and a half hours in the Nordic Dark Ages, I slumped deeply in my seat. My face had settled into a magnificent scowl. The Northman wore me the f**k out.
But, there’s so much more to this movie than its emotional punishment. Eggers delivers a gorgeous film to behold, with its cinematography, editing, and sound work all meticulously executed to all-star levels. See this on the biggest screen you can find. As with his underrated The Lighthouse, this film showcases Eggers as a self-assured director who knows how to captivate an audience.
The performances match that brilliance. Skarsgård renders Amleth into an imposing figure, driven by a furnace of primitive fury. He burns with hatred, until the flames threaten to consume him, as well. Taylor-Joy plays Olga as his perfect balance: She’s resourceful and formidable, but also patient, kind, and grounded. Kidman’s queen is a reservoir of strength, but also deep, painful secrets. Her work is one of the film’s biggest assets. That also goes for Bang, who becomes a force of booming, unapologetic evil. Only Willem Dafoe gets thoroughly wasted as the king’s fool. I suspect there’s more of his character on the cutting room floor, and I’d love to see that footage someday.
All this brings up the same conundrum that haunted me during Midsommar: I admired The Northman, very much. I respected the immense craftwork that went into its making. But…did I enjoy it? Would I recommend it? In the end, yes and yes. However, both of those nods come with large caveats. This is a brutal, ferocious, and overlong experience. Some viewers may adore The Northman for its striking beauty, while many others will be repulsed by the sheer ugliness of the world it recreates.
137 min. R. On demand; also in theaters.