Egger’s ‘The Northman’ worth a watch

Nikolai Gentes, Staff

“The Northman,” the third movie by director Robert Eggers, who previously directed “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”—two of my favorite films in their respective years—was released on April 22. While his previous two films have been horror movies, “The Northman” makes a foray into adventure and action, and so far, it’s received positive critical acclaim. 

The film depicts an ancient Scandinavian boy named Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) whose father is murdered by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir also steals the wife of Amleth’s father, Queen Gudrun  (Nicole Kidman) and takes over his kingdom. Amleth escapes on a boat, pledging to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle. The film then jumps ahead to Amleth as a man, following him on his journey to carry out his promise. 

While I can’t say that “The Northman” meets the standards set by Eggers’ previous works, it is still a worthy addition to Eggers’ impressive catalog. 

One of the film’s most captivating elements is its visuals. Amleth’s vision of Valhalla mesmerizes with its dazzling makeup and color, bringing fantasy into reality. The depictions of spirituality all manage to remain appropriately mystical, and simultaneously so well-crafted that they become believable. Not only does this add a sense of grandiosity to the film, but it greatly contributes to the folktale-esque style of storytelling of the film, making several scenes feel like pages from a fairytale. 

Elsewhere, the film remains visually striking. The special effects that appear during battle scenes are macabre and realistic, along with the mise en scene elements in various locations, gluing the viewer to the screen. Even at the movie’s lower points, the visuals are enough to keep one engaged.

Balancing mysticism with a commitment to realism, “The Northman” is a can’t-miss spectacle for its appearance alone. 

Skarsgard does a fine job of bringing the character of Prince Amleth to life, but the performances by Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest are the true prizes here. Kidman  subtly brings a great deal of depth to her character, managing to act believably loving, distant, and borderline psychotic all in one film. Despite her screen time being dwarfed by that of Skarsgard’s, she remains one of the film’s most memorable and enjoyable aspects. 

Taylor-Joy’s depiction of Amleth’s love interest, a Slavic slave, is similarly gripping. She brings an ample amount of both ferociousness and tenderness to her character. She’s responsible for some of the film’s most emotionally potent moments, and time and time again, remains a completely believable and sympathetic character.  

If there is one big problem with “The Northman,” it’s the underdevelopment of some of its more interesting themes. While “The Northman” is, to an extent, a rather basic revenge story—you may have noticed the similarities with “Hamlet”— there are quite a few moments where the film breaks conventions and questions the morality of Amleth’s actions. Some of the things Amleth does in his quest for vengeance border on despicable, and they show how revenge is never black and white, and the hero isn’t necessarily a good guy.

The only issue with this is that this examination is never done to the extent that it should be. The film could make more effort to dissect the morality of Amleth’s quest. Instead, it chooses to sprinkle these thought-provoking moments thinly throughout the film. This causes these ideas to take a backseat to the cookie-cutter format the film followings. By the end of the film, the critique of revenge feels lost in favor of a more traditional route. 

While “The Northman” may not be as boundary-pushing or enjoyable as Robert Eggers’ past films, it’s still nonetheless further proof of Eggers’ well-deserved status as one of Hollywood’s best modern directors.