The legendary Scandinavian tale of Amleth is considered one of the primary sources of inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Just look at the anagram stylings of Hamlet’s name as evidence. However, nothing has quite captured the sweeping epic feel onscreen that the tale of Amleth requires. Thankfully, Robert Eggers‘ THE NORTHMAN is now my go-to example of how to deliver an epic and make it feel like an epic for the big screen. A tale of brutal revenge, Eggers takes us through Amleth’s journey with ease, melding the Norse paganism well with a grounded visceral realism. An immersive, captivating experience, it will be difficult for the audience not to look away as we see Amleth’s fateful journey reach its natural conclusion.
THE NORTHMAN stars Alexander Skarsgård (“Big Little Lies”), Nicole Kidman (“Nine Perfect Strangers”), Claes Bang (“Dracula“), Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho), Gustav Lindh (Queen of Hearts), Ethan Hawke (“Marvel’s Moon Knight“), Björk (Dancer in the Dark), and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home). The film is directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), with a screenplay written by Eggers and Sjón.
THE NORTHMAN is a straightforward tale of revenge, with a protagonist who steadfastly pushes forward. As storytelling goes, this follows what you would expect from a legendary tale that you’d expect told around a fire. From a small pup to the grown bear-wolf berserker warrior, Alexander Skarsgård perfectly encapsulates the warrior with a thirst for blood. However, Skarsgård invokes nuance. There are glimpses of what could have been conveyed in his gaze as he watches his fellow warriors engage in brutalities. Or, how he goes to the defense of a child to spare him pain. In these moments we see a note of the cyclic violence of the time period as well as the violent nature of men themselves. Violence begets violence, matriculating down the bloodlines until no one is left.
We see this illustrated through Amleth’s kin. Ethan Hawke’s King Aurvandill War-Raven and Claes Bang’s Fjölnir the Brotherless continue the precedent set by their ancestors. Brother killing brother in an act of conquest, but it doesn’t stop there. No, there is a ripple effect from their actions revealed later on in the film outside of its direct impact on Amleth. And the discovery is what truly pushes Amleth from boyhood into manhood. The knowledge that what we perceive as children becomes a lot more nuanced as adults. What becomes a quest for revenge becomes muddied, and highlights the grey areas which Eggers loves to explore and sift through.
The guiding factors that muddy the waters with the knowledge they have to provide are the two primary female characters in the film. Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún starts off as a mother and, arguably, starts off as a weakly developed character. However, this is intentional. Much of the perception of this character is provided by Amleth, who sees her through a child’s mindset. As THE NORTHMAN continues on, we learn more about her character, which transforms everything. While the transition could have been stronger in her performance in these moments, what Kidman provides serves its purpose. It is a bucket of cold water to the face. Much like Amleth, we too awaken to the realities of this world we’re in.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga of the Birch Forest serves to guide and remind us of reality just as much as she does Amleth. While a sorceress, she points out reason to Amleth while he fixates on vengeance. She warns him. Yearns for him. Tries to steer him away from what fate has in store for him while also operating on her own agenda. While on paper the character of Olga serves as an archetype in some ways, Taylor-Joy’s performance elevates it beyond what it could have been. Endlessly compelling, no one would complain about more screentime for Olga.
While conveying an epic tale, immersion is the key to success. Eggers and his team spared no expense in making sure that the audience is fully immersed in the world of THE NORTHMAN. The first step towards that immersion is via the sound design and the score, which is the audience’s gateway into the world. Composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough do an impeccable job here utilizing folk instruments from the region that tap into the ritualistic wonder that the culture brings. An easy soundtrack purchase when available, there is something, cinematic and oddly soothing about the score. In a theatrical setting, the score is a true highlight for that immersion.
From Linda Muir’s costume designs to Craig Lathrop’s production design to the set decoration, the world of these legendary Viking cultures is brought to life. This should come as no surprise for those who have followed Eggers’ films leading up to this point. There is no expense spared on the investment in the art department on THE NORTHMAN. The same can be said about any of the departments in the film. For those who look at crafts, this film is the one for you. The level of research done on this project shines onscreen. From the intricate carvings of Odin in the sacred space to the sword designs to the traditional Slavic garb worn by Olga and her people earlier on in the film, it’s a cornucopia of research and care brought to life. If there is any complaint, it would be a need for a slightly smoother edit transition between a couple of the vision scenes. But that’s it. To all the teams who worked in these departments, a job well done! Absolutely impeccable.
Of course, crafts cannot be mentioned without invoking cinematography, and Jarin Blaschke‘s lens is a huge component in elevating THE NORTHMAN to its rightful epic status. The film accidentally becomes a walking advertisement for Iceland, with Blaschke capturing the ethereal, majestic quality of Iceland’s landscape to perfection. God-like and mighty, the environment dwarfs the people who occupy its land. Close-up shots of the character’s faces allow us to take in Amleth’s perspective numerous times. Again, this is Amleth’s tale and we are experiencing things as he does. So, these shots work effectively here. A note must also be made regarding the sweeping tracking shot utilized in the much-talked-about one-shot battle sequence, where the stunts team truly excelled in the choreography. Brutal, dirty, and reveling in violence, Blaschke makes sure to capture every moment of the brutality we see Amleth and his comrades enact onscreen. Had the film been shot in any other way, I’m not certain it would have achieved the magic and bigger-than-life feeling that Blaschke managed to bring to THE NORTHMAN.
THE NORTHMAN is everything a nerdy Nordic folklore person could possibly desire. The amount of research and care that went into this film radiates off the screen and smacks you in the face. Eggers has set the bar for these kinds of films moving forward. This is how epics should be done. From the visuals to the performances to its score, everything comes together to create a fully immersive experience for the audience. THE NORTHMAN excels.
If you are able to do so safely, go check out THE NORTHMAN in theaters. Focus Features will release THE NORTHMAN in theaters on April 22, 2022
Images courtesy Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC. There is animal death featured in this film as a head’s up to those who need those warnings.