A quick Google search shows that mainstream Viking films are few and far between. While there may be three How to Train Your Dragon entries, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is about the only other one that comes close; other than Valhalla Rising. The rest are either straight-to-video affairs or international features. I’m sure there’s a niche for them, but they’re just not something populating movie screens with regularity.
The Northman also is not for everyone. A brutally intense hard-R filled with Eggers’ typical gonzo visuals, it straddles the line between folklore, mysticism, and romanticized fiction with plenty of symbolism. Yet it all works spectacularly well, which comes as no surprise considering it’s from the director of The Witch and The Lighthouse. For those willing to invest in a 2+ hour epic, they’ll find the continuing trend of spring feeling like award season.
895, the North Atlantic, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns home to his wife Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and son Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak). Festivities commence, and Amleth later joins his father for a rite of passage. After which, the King’s brother, Fjölnir The Brotherless (Claes Bang), ambushes them, killing Aurvandill, with Amleth managing to escape. Soon, Fjölnir has overtaken the kingdom, including the Queen, sending Amleth to grow up to become a berserker Viking. Now grown, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) sets out to right the wrongs of his family on a roaring rampage of revenge.
Patience is a virtue when it comes to The Northman. Like all tales of revenge, the set up wizzes by in a flash, with the middle settling into a slower pace as we tag along with Amleth on his quest. Eggers’ fills the screen with some wild sequences — many of which are long takes — but gives the characters plenty of room to breathe. The relationship between Amleth and a Slavic slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is quite believable. The two are allowed to come to understand each other, rather than thrusting them into a standard film relationship, thrown together by plot mechanics. They also make a magnetic onscreen couple, even in the midst of literal bloodshed.
Eggers manages to continue making some of the most visually arresting films, while keeping us on our toes with his storytelling. As gruesome as some of the film is, Eggers gets away with a lot by having some of the worst happen either slightly off camera, or in the dark. The mind always makes things worse than they could show and Eggers clearly understands this.
The Northman is another film to throw on the year’s backburner for awards consideration this fall, meaning to say that it’s one of the best films of the quarter and will get brought up again when it’s due.