The Northman

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Princess Bride was the last film I expected to think of while watching The Northman. It occurs when Prince Amleth makes his proclamation: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Like the declaration of Inigo Montoya in the William Goldman novel and subsequent adaptation, the vindictive pledge is like a mantra. In all fairness, the mood of this Viking adventure is closer to darker revenge movies like Conan the Barbarian, Braveheart, and Gladiator.

The ancient Norse legends are the basis for Robert Eggers’ tale. They’re part of a rich tradition that also inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. The Northman is the director’s most commercial release. He’s working from a reported budget of somewhere between $70 and $90 million depending on whatever accounting reports you believe. Regardless, it’s easy to see where the money went. The chronicle is a beautifully photographed epic of visual grandeur. If you’re content to simply gorge on the scenery, you’ll be satiated.

The story is simplistic, but it’s accomplished by a talented ensemble. Young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses the murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), and the capture of his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Years later, Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) vows to assassinate Fjölnir. He also promises to liberate his mother — still played by Kidman (!) The actress is now only nine years older than the actor playing her son. Ah, Hollywood! Amleth embarks on a quest to find and execute Fjölnir. During his journey, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress/Slavic slave who becomes his ally and also love interest — not necessarily in that order.

There’s no denying that Alexander Skargaaard has the physicality of a Viking. His performance is a wild untamed muscular bundle of rage. The dude is so jacked, his workout routine suggests he’s doing a lot more than rowing a boat and occasionally wielding a sword. Intellectually he has one thing on his mind: to avenge his father’s death. So he enlists the help of a group of berserkers to help him accomplish his task. I wish I could say there was more to the plot but that’s it. The account portrays this undertaking.

The Northman is a surprisingly conventional tale from a director who heretofore has been anything but. It’s not surprising that the director is feeling a little playful. He’s working with a massive budget that now allows for a grander scale and scope. The Witch and The Lighthouse were contemplative pictures that traded action for meaning. The Northman feels like an about-face. The screenplay — co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón — isn’t too interested in profound considerations. It’s a basic and bloody revenge scenario. Introspection be damned.

Where this visceral fable of retaliation excels is in the iconography that elevates the most historically accurate Viking movie ever made. At least that’s what the press materials brag. Maybe it is. I can’t dispute the boast because I don’t have a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies. The research and attention to detail must be acknowledged. The director is hell-bent on historical authenticity. The feature relies on a lot of window dressing that follows a narrative blueprint of retribution. I’m talking about spectacular production design by Craig Lathrop, beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and meticulously created costumes by Linda Muir.

I’ll admit the spectacle is visually impressive. The landscapes are stunning. The violence is brutal. Yet I’d accept a little inaccuracy for some narrative depth. The saga is high on style but low on innovation. Nevertheless, it does manage to proffer a meditative consideration of masculinity and honor. Meanwhile, the action remains rooted in pulpy earthiness. It all culminates in a bloody skirmish between Amleth and Fjölnir who converge — naked — near an active volcano. If nothing else, it’s a moment that ensures this picture demands a mention on lists of memorable fights that include Women in Love and Eastern Promises. The Northman‘s place in cinematic history is ensured.

04-21-22

6 Responses to “The Northman”

  1. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    Funny all I could think of was the Lion King and Hamlet but w vikings… need a rewatch however because I was way too tired for this yesterday

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is disheartening to see the movie pull in such low numbers opening weekend. But then again, is that really surprising? A super violent Viking revenge epic probably not the best timing with everything going on in the world right now. That’s just me wildly speculating, but I wonder if people’s tolerance for violent movies at this moment is not what it was even during the pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have a point. I do think a $12.3 million debut isn’t terrible for a film like this — in and of itself. The problem is they spent far too much on this production. It’s unlikely to recoup its ridiculous cost.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I see people noting “The Lion King”, comparison. That never even occurred to me, but I definitely see it. I liked it. It seemed very authentic, with the Vikings, magic and style. 3 1/2 ⭐️

    Liked by 1 person

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