Sunday 24 April 2022

Film Review: The Northman

For his third feature film, writer-director Robert Eggers returns with a sprawling Norse epic that spans the Baltic in The Northman.

With two celebrated A24 indies under his belt (The Witch and The Lighthouse), Eggers has graduated to big-budget studio territory here. That trajectory happens all the time in Hollywood – but more often than not, a bigger budget means less control and more studio notes.

With upward of $70 million to play with, The Northman sees Eggers seriously up the ante, in both the scale and action stakes. But crucially, his trademark audacity, artistry and pursuit of authenticity has been preserved while making the leap to studio filmmaker too.

A blood-soaked revenge story, The Northman is a tale as old as time. Alexander Skarsgard plays Amleth, a Viking seeking revenge on his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who killed Amleth's father (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapped his mother (Nicole Kidman) two decades ago. Now a fierce Viking berserker, Amleth picks up the trail of Fjolnir in Iceland – where he crosses paths and teams up with a young Slavic slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Skarsgard, who also serves as a producer on the film, approaches the role with a raw ferocity – he's more feral animal than man. There's more to Amleth than akimbo axes and a steely gaze – and Skarsgard sinks his teeth into the sweeping, operatic emotions that stem from stories rooted in myth and legend.  

He's such an imposing presence physically as well – whether it's charging through bloody Viking village raid, stalking his prey through moonlit woodland or crawling on all fours and howling wolf-like at the moon, there's a barbaric, animalistic intensity to his performance. 

Eggers matches that intensity in every aspect of the filmmaking. The Northman is saturated in cultural, historical and mythical detail, from some of the language used (like Old Norse and Old Slavic) to the costuming, production design and the score, which is filled with propulsive drums and choral vocals. 

Taylor-Joy delivers another terrific performance; her ethereal look immediately at home with this world and its aesthetic. Meanwhile, Kidman continues to make interesting career choices – and this might be the most interesting we've seen from her for a decade. She isn't in the film much, but there's no Hollywood pretension or shade of shyness in her performance – like Taylor-Joy, there's a zeal and commitment to the broad thematic strokes and characterisation. 

The action is uncompromising and gruesome, where guts are spilled, throats are ripped and heads are lopped off. Most impressive though, is how Eggers shoots the action is wide, long takes where meticulous coordination and choreography is crucial. 

There's a slight disclaimer attached to The Northman; despite its all-star cast, it remains a deeply weird and somewhat inaccessible film. The violence is confronting, there's a language barrier to overcome and the thin plot does drag a little.

But it you can look past that, there's a lot to like. We all like to complain that Hollywood does take risks nowadays; that all films are controlled and curated to appeal as broadly as possible. The Northman bucks that trend, and for that and that alone, it's worth checking out.

The Verdict: 9/10

Fire, blood, mud and guts, The Northman is an ethereal, elemental cinematic experience from start to finish. 

The Northman is in cinemas across Australia now.

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