‘The Northman’ Review: Things go south in rehashed story
Three films into his career, writer/director Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself with period pieces that stick closely to the language used during their respective eras.
Much of the script for his debut The Witch was translated directly from 17th century Puritan texts, while the dialogue from The Lighthouse leans heavily into the dialects of late 19th century sailors. His latest effort, The Northman, is another piece of historical fiction, this time in ninth century Iceland, but everything just feels a bit too hollow in this outing. The music of the characters’ words somehow doesn’t ring as true this time, and it doesn’t help that this is the most straightforward narrative that Eggers has told thus far. There are wrinkles of weirdness and wonder left in this tale, but like the film’s hulking protagonist, it prefers bold print over footnotes and action over contemplation.
We meet the Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as a young boy, excited to greet his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) on the way home from his most recent pillaging. However, it turns out the most treacherous battle awaits him in his kingdom, where Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders him in front of Amleth, and takes the throne for himself. The young prince narrowly escapes Fjölnir’s forces, is taken in by a separate band of Vikings, and vows vengeance on Fjölnir, while also swearing to rescue his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as well. Factoring into his conquest for revenge is Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave who comes to have a growing affection for the fearless Amleth, and whose knowledge and practice of dark magic proves useful to their shared goal of overthrowing Fjölnir.
The ubiquity of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth is due in no small part to the direct influence it had on William Shakespeare while writing Hamlet, a tale that has itself been adapted countless times in various mediums.
Like just about any other movie, The Northman is less about the “what” and more about the “how”; it’s less important what it’s about, than how it’s about it. This is where the film is chiefly a disappointment: its story doesn’t do quite enough to distinguish itself from myriad other fictional accounts of a son swearing revenge of his murderous uncle. Too much of the film is blunt in its execution of its core mission; Amleth literally repeats it in voiceover over and over like a mantra. There are details in the journey that evoke the time period in interesting ways, but they don’t often add much to the way that we’re supposed to feel about these characters.
Eggers is working with a budget that’s roughly eight times the size of each of his two previous features, and he certainly makes good use of the extra cash when it comes to presentation and overall cinematic experience. A bravura attack sequence set in the land of the Rus feels like a follow-up to the opening salvo Iñárritu put together for The Revenant. It begins with Amleth grabbing a thrown spear mid-air and chucking it back at the opposing forces, and doesn’t end until his battle axe has spilled more than its fair share of blood.
Willem Dafoe makes the most of his limited screen time as an overseer of a spiritual ceremony, talking directly to camera, while ominously describing fates being sealed and tears of sadness that can no longer be shed. The reclusive Icelandic artist Björk also pops up as a sorceress with foreboding news, and an outfit that is exactly as ornate as one would expect from the fashion iconoclast.
It’s window dressing, and exquisitely-rendered window dressing, but the more I sat with The Northman, the more it felt like a distraction rather than a supplement to the storyline. The Witch and The Lighthouse simply carried much more weight subtextually and psychologically than this film, and put bluntly (as Amleth may respect), there just doesn’t seem to be enough brains to this story. There is a scene between the grown-up Amleth and Gudrún that challenges our conception of what their relationship may be, but there are too few moments of character insight like this in the rest of the movie. From a narrative perspective, I didn’t feel challenged or moved very often, but perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t in suspense as I watched this revenge tale play out.
Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting something different from Eggers based on previous work, but The Northman is a letdown nevertheless.