The Northman (2022)

The film that I have personally been most excited about this year is Robert Eggers’ The Northman. Based on the legend of Amleth, the story follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he vows to avenge his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) who died at the hands of his bastard brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) who was kidnapped by the latter. The plot itself is fairly simple as we follow Amleth’s quest across the seas to Iceland, but as ever with Robert Eggers’ films, The Northman ventures into great characterisation as we get to see Amleth’s emotional development throughout. The film has been marketed as an action epic adventure which it is, but it is also a drama steeped in trauma as Amleth tries to complete the impossible and seek justice from those who have wronged him. The film features one of the best casts of the year as it also includes supporting turns from Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe, as well as a brilliant turn from Björk, who makes a return to acting after more than a decade away from the silver screen.

The film is directed by Robert Eggers who cowrote the script with Sjón, a frequent collaborator with Björk. The first thing that is noticeable about The Northman is that it is Eggers’ largest project in scope and budget as his previous films, The VVitch and The Lighthouse utilise minimal locations and characters whereas The Northman features an array of different characters as Amleth makes his way cross-country to avenge his father. The direction and writing seems more suited for mainstream audiences than Eggers previous efforts (you can read my thoughts on those here), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What Eggers manages to achieve with The Northman is his ability to make a film of a larger scope that is suitable for a general audience.

Alexander Skarsgård has garnered a reputation thanks to his action-based roles, but his dramatic turns have often gone wrongly unnoticed such as his amazingly uncomfortable performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (read my review here). The actor playing Amleth not only has to demonstrate a huge level of physical fitness, but they also have to be capable of conveying the character’s emotional journey and the burden that he is faced with. This is what makes Skarsgård perfect for the role over the physical aspect as you can see with every strike of his sword that there is the ulterior motive and bigger picture in Amleth’s face. What makes Skarsgård’s performance so brilliant is that the character of Amleth is not invincible or incapable of feeling pain as he is beaten down plenty of times by his foes, but this seems to drive him further to outfight them constantly and this emotional battle that Amleth has eventual manifests into uncontrollable rage.

The film is specifically a singular character journey as we follow Amleth’s quest, but that doesn’t mean we don’t encounter plenty of other brilliant characters along the way. The main supporting character comes in the form of Olga, a sorceress who fights against those who threaten her and proves herself to be a perfect balance for Amleth as she brings out his human side. Playing Olga is the incredible Anya Taylor-Joy, who has showcased a fantastic range in her relatively short career. Giving her the chance to reunite with Eggers following her breakout in his debut feature, The VVitch, Taylor-Joy’s performance is strong and determined, as she longs for a life away from slavery as she bids to be free. Another brilliant supporting role comes from Nicole Kidman, who plays Amleth’s mother, Gudrún, as she displays an ethereal quality that makes her seem untouchable even though she is within Amleth’s gaze for a lot of the film, while proving that there is a darker side to her character than what may seem.

What I was most looking forward to when it came to watching this film was the return of Björk to the big screen. Despite very limited screen time, Björk’s performance is visually striking, and her presence has a lasting effect on the entire film thanks to her eerie turn as the Seeress. Not only is the performance integral to the overall plot as she tells Amleth of his fate as he readies himself to journey to Fjölnir, it brings a supernatural and otherworldly quality to the film that provides escapism from the chaos that surrounds Amleth’s reality. Hopefully, this small role encourages Björk to take on even bigger roles and sees her return to the big screen sooner rather than later.

From the outset, The Northman is a visual feast for the eyes thanks to cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, who perfectly captures the medieval setting of the film and does a perfect job balancing out the light and shadow of the natural landscape. What Blaschke manages to achieve is conveying Amleth’s point of view to the audience by merging the real and the supernatural, so it becomes one perspective throughout. Because we are seeing the world through Amleth’s eyes, there are certain events that can be misinterpreted or wrongly perceived due to Amleth’s error and Blashcke puts this across perfectly.

The music in The Northman has been composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough who provide a wonderful soundtrack that incorporates sounds of the time and instruments that would have been used, while ensuring that it adds to the tension and action that is happening onscreen. Just as we see Amleth’s emotional journey visually onscreen, the music provides a perfect backdrop to this so the film becomes a sensory experience and the audience can really emote with Amleth and his struggles.

The Northman may appear to be an action film when it comes to its marketing, but the film delves into deep characterisation and seeks to explore Amleth’s motivations and the emotional journey he takes from the moment his father dies to seeking out his revenge. As expected with an Eggers film, the film is brutal and unflinching in its visual while boasting a script that perfectly captures the essence of the time period and culture to really immerse the audience. The Northman is Eggers’ biggest film to date in terms of budget and scope, clearly demonstrating his ability to grow as a filmmaker as well as demonstrating how his vision can fit in with mainstream audiences.

What did you think of The Northman? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

The Northman is available to see in cinemas now!

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