The Northman

Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Robert Eggers


Alexander Skarsgård Anya Taylor-Joy Björk Claes Bang Ethan Hawke Nicole Kidman Willem Dafoe


Nervous about the potential for studio-mandated creativity stifling here.


Fears unfounded! You can feel the blood, sweat and tears in this.

In Retrospect.

A delightfully offbeat epic. No guts, no glory!

Robert Eggers assembles an intrepid team for the epic tale of a wronged Viking prince’s quest for vengeance.

Something is rotten in the state of Iceland. A traumatised princeling with a mop of blonde hair grows into a mad-eyed Viking Berserker; the feared bear-warriors who ransacked their way across the ancient North. His treacherous uncle plays the role of steely-eyed sheep farmer and sometime priest, an ocean away from the kingdom for which he murdered his own brother.

A young witch, stolen away from her ancestral lands in the birch forest, plots a quieter vengeance on her captors – her kin are wild mystics of the woods, who see the future with a preternatural clarity. Sinewy branches from the tree of fate connect these individuals, against the desolate plains of old Scandinavia, where men and monsters look the same under the pale glow of the moon.

After the folkloric thrills of The Witch and Beckettian grotesque of The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ third feature film may have benefitted from a bump in budget and scale (here he partners with Universal, rather than A24) but any concerns about whether or not this shift from indie to blockbuster might have stifled his creativity are quickly dismissed.

Within 10 minutes of The Northman beginning, Willem Dafoe’s Heimir the Fool is leaping around a ceremonial fire and Ethan Hawke (the ill-fated King Aurvandil War-Raven) is barking like a mad dog. A feeling of relief sets in – this is the idiosyncratic Eggers we know and love. The longboat slowly drifts out onto volatile waters.

At its heart, The Northman is a tale as old as time. It has its origins in Scandinavian folklore: the story of Amleth can be traced back to the 13th century textbook, the Prose Edda, from which much contemporary understanding of Old Norse culture and mythology stems.

The details vary, but the crux is the same. After his father is usurped by his uncle, Amleth swears revenge, and everything goes south from there onwards (if this all sounds a little familiar, it’s because William Shakespeare brought the story to the English-speaking world in Hamlet some 300 years later). But with every folktale the same rings true – the story’s in the telling.

Teaming up with Icelandic author and poet Sjón for The Northman’s lyrical, frequently disorientating script, Eggers conjures a world where the lines between reality and the supernatural do not exist. The Old Gods and their whims are revered and feared in equal measure, while beasts of the forest possess a curiously human understanding of the world. This magical realm is inhabited by humans who know they are but playthings for capricious forces beyond their understanding.

The tension comes in deciding what to do with this information. For reluctant hero Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) vengeance comes at a price he never questioned until fate intervened, bringing him to Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) who proves an invaluable ally as he draws closer to avenging his father, saving his mother (Nicole Kidman), and killing his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang).

Living as we do in an unfortunate age of blockbuster homogeneity, it feels novel to watch a film that feels like a coherent, considered vision. The Northman is a testament to the art of filmmaking, from the rough-hewn huts where our hero spends his time plotting to the visceral squelch of mud and blood.

It’s a film with fingerprints all over it; one that has been crafted rather than manufactured, and rewatches reveal a chance to revel in its sharpness; a scene in which Amleth seeks the counsel of a blind Seeress (the incomparable Björk) teems with intricate set and costume details, while a violent game of Knattleikr – a Viking cross between lacrosse and rugby – proves more adrenaline-inducing than any CGI special of recent years.

There’s all the violence one might expect from a Viking blockbuster, but this is tempered by moments of softness, revealing a reference for this much-mythologised culture which extends beyond the ideas looted for pop culture use in the past.

The deftness of Eggers’ direction and creative team is matched by the gusto of his performers. Skarsgård – an excellent actor who has largely flown under the radar outside of his nefarious role as Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband on HBO series Big Little Lies – developed the project alongside Eggers, and this might well be the role he was born to play.

The taciturn Amleth communicates mostly through brute force, and while Skarsgård certainly has the imposing Viking physicality down, there’s also something deeply vulnerable about his performance, a suggestion that Amleth’s all-consuming desire for vengeance has kept him in a state of arrested development, no more worldly than he was as a boy awed by the return of his battle-scarred father. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but Skarsgård makes it look effortless; the softness that slithers in when he shares scenes with Taylor-Joy and Kidman makes him all the more compelling.

Facing off against him is Claes Bang as the similarly stoic Fjölnir, whose initial villainy gives way to something more pitiful as the story unfolds, while Kidman delivers a delightfully devious turn as Queen Gudrún. It has felt as if Kidman has been phoning it in a little lately (see Being the Ricardos, The Prom, Bombshell) but The Northman allows Unhinged Kidman to slip through, a little reminiscent of her underrated performance in To Die For.

This proves a suitable foil for Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the ethereal witch of the woods that offers Amleth a possible shot at salvation. She is fast becoming one of our more beguiling screen presences, and more than holds her own in this starry cast while providing one of the most memorable moments involving period blood in a dark confrontation with Fjölnir.

In the truest sense of the word, this is a spectacle: cinema as theatre, on a scale comparable to the likes of Gladiator or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For all its action and searing setpieces, there’s a solid emotional core – while The Northman really focuses on the age-old question of what we are willing to sacrifice for love or revenge, it’s also a pontification on self-mythologising and the limits of destiny, with plenty of twists and tricks up its sleeve. Sjón feels like an inspired choice of collaborator for Eggers, adding a mystical lyricism to the script, though of course it maintains Eggers’ impish sense of humour. Perhaps that is what feels most impressive of all; how truly this is a Robert Eggers film, delightfully strange and off-kilter as his previous work.

It feels easy to bemoan the current state of cinema, with the dominance of titles based on pre-existing IP (which, if you want to get technical, The Northman is, but only just) and a slow slide towards tentpole films that lack any personality in their style or script, instead serving as a means to hopefully establish the next link in a never-ending Content chain. But when watching a film like The Northman – gloriously loud and vast in conception and execution – a glimmer of hope for the future exists.

We can still have films that are bold and beautiful and transportive; there are unquestionably filmmakers working today with the vision and drive to pull it off. The question is – with Eggers himself speaking on the difficulties of making a film with such intense editorial oversight, and the gradual merging of studios to the point it feels like a monopoly is inevitable – how long must we wait for the next one?

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Published 11 Apr 2022

Tags: Alexander Skarsgård Anya Taylor-Joy Björk Claes Bang Ethan Hawke Nicole Kidman Robert Eggers The Northman Willem Dafoe


Nervous about the potential for studio-mandated creativity stifling here.


Fears unfounded! You can feel the blood, sweat and tears in this.

In Retrospect.

A delightfully offbeat epic. No guts, no glory!

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