Review: The Northman (Robert Eggers)

“Unfortunately, widening his scope as well as his budget and starry cast sees Eggers retain his dedication to period-accurate detail, but lose sight of what made his earlier films so enthralling in the first place: suggestion.”

Revenge is an all-consuming emotion, a rage that kicks off a perpetual cycle of violence. His third film sees director Robert Eggers leave his native New England for the rugged and windswept shores of Iceland, but thematically The Northman has more in common with his previous work than its big budget and larger scope suggest at first. Where The Witch had fear take complete hold of a 17th-century farming family, and The Lighthouse had isolation drive Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson into an all-encompassing madness, Eggers’ latest and biggest opus settles for a more tangible emotion to spur its main character’s single-mindedness onward. Unfortunately, widening his scope as well as his budget and starry cast sees Eggers retain his dedication to period-accurate detail, but lose sight of what made his earlier films so enthralling in the first place: suggestion.

The titular Northman is Amleth, played at a younger age by Oscar Novak but for most of the film by an impressively built Alexander Skarsgård. Amleth obviously sounds an awful lot like Hamlet; the Scandinavian folk tale the film is (loosely) based on predates Shakespeare’s work by about five centuries, and it certainly shares some similarities with the famous play. Eggers, co-writing the screenplay with Icelandic author Sjón, does not manage to get the depth out of the story that Shakespeare did though, keeping the story simple and straightforward, and ultimately quite predictable.

At the start of the film young Amleth eagerly awaits the return of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), who has been on a raiding campaign with his cruel brother Fjölnir (an unrecognizable Claes Bang). Amleth idolizes his father, who realizes that the boy is on the verge of becoming a man and decides to have him undergo a bizarre hazing ritual under the guidance of Willem Dafoe (perfect, albeit predictable casting for this one-scene role). His worth as a man is tested when Fjölnir betrays Aurvandil and kills him, taking his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for his own. Amleth manages to escape and, as he rows out onto the ocean, he vows to avenge his father’s death and save his mother.

We meet Amleth again a number of years and a lot of muscle mass later, and he is still rowing. He has become part of a group of berserkers that raids villages, selling off any able-bodied captives as slaves. When he learns that their latest human spoils will be sent off to Iceland, where a usurped and exiled Fjölnir is now living as a local chieftain, Amleth brands himself to be sold to the man he has vowed to kill, and also to have a chance to reunite with his mother. Along the way he meets the Slavic Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a shrewd young woman Amleth immediately connects with. Once in the service of Fjölnir, his thirst for revenge can finally be quenched.

In his previous films Eggers left a lot up to the imagination, both that of his characters and of the viewer. This made The Witch and The Lighthouse somewhat uneasy films to watch because anything was possible and it was hard to distinguish between reality and what was in the minds of the characters. Little is left to suggestion in The Northman, by contrast. Up until the death of Hawke’s character it is appropriately unsettling, with its archaic and stilted language and both Hawke and Dafoe going for broke in their performances, exactly what the film needs. As soon as we meet Amleth as an adult though, character depth and narrative surprise are sucked out of the film, and Amleth walks a path oft-trodden in cinema, that of the loner on a quest for revenge. Taylor-Joy is tacked onto him as a cliché love interest, and even a supposedly shocking final act reveal cannot deter Amleth from a showdown with the film’s main foe, his uncle.

Amleth is a character blinded by rage, which renders him one-dimensional and gives Skarsgård little else to do than look angry and hack his way to the ‘final boss’ like a character from a videogame. The actor nails the physicality, but Amleth has too little emotional weight or surprise in his arc for viewers to really get attached to his story. Olga, by contrast, is a far more interesting character, even if she is as undefined as Amleth, because Taylor-Joy manages to imbue her with a humanity that is sorely lacking from Skarsgård’s character. The rest of the cast are dealt roles that merely function to propel Amleth’s story without any character motivation of their own.

The Witch and The Lighthouse were far more outlandish films within their genre, certainly given the stars attached to them. The larger-than-life performances, in particular those by Dafoe and Pattinson in the latter, fit those films and their narrative like a glove. The Northman, however, is a straightforward film that within its genre constraints follows all the beats of a generic Hollywood film, but mixed with the archaic language, which at times for seemingly no reason at all switches to Nordic, this results in a hodgepodge of performances ranging from the truly wild (Dafoe) to the contemporary (Taylor-Joy). There is little congruence between these ‘Eggersian’ elements and the simplicity of the tale. Perhaps it’s the budget, perhaps it’s the larger cast, but it feels as if Eggers is taking fewer risks this time around. Which doesn’t deny the film’s more outre elements, although most of these can be put down to the strong influences from Norse mythology. Eggers relishes these moments and makes the most of them, but they feel out of place in a film that is for all intents and purposes an arthouse actioneer. You can count on the director to make sure that the technical aspects of the film are top-notch, from cinematography to production design and costuming (although the CGI work is at best suspect). You can expect the dialogue to befit a Scandinavian 12th-century folk tale. But all of it is in service to a narrative that leaves little to the imagination, when that had been the strength of Eggers’ work up to this point. One can’t help but feel underwhelmed once the credits start to roll, and that is the last thing one would expect from a film by the director of such imaginative works as The Witch and The Lighthouse.