Synopsis: In 895 AD, after his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his royal father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) to usurps both his throne and his queen (Nicole Kidman), Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) flees into hiding, returning years later to exact a bloody revenge, aided by enslaved witch Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy). Hey wait, that plot sounds familiar …
1. The Northman is easily director Robert Eggers’ worst film. It’s also one of the best of the year.
2. Ok, so a bit of context for that last statement. Robert Eggers is quite possibly the best young (<40) filmmaker working today, and one of the key figures behind the recent boom of the indie-arthouse horror subgenre. His debut picture The Witch is a bona fide masterpiece, and his second film The Lighthouse might be even better. As such, calling The Northman Eggers’ weakest film is not much of a put-down, considering that his previous two were two of the best movies of the 2010s. However, what makes The Witch and The Lighthouse such towering achievements is the sense that they were an undiluted auteurist vision, with no mind whatsoever paid to marketability or commercial appeal. Both these films are uncompromisingly challenging, what with their use of period-appropriate dialogue, expressionist lighting, and a mood of bleakness that suffuses every frame. With all that in mind, it’s thus somewhat surprising that The Northman is a wide-release film with a $90 million dollar budget. What’s happened to the guy who filmed The Witch only using natural and candle light and insisted on custom-made photographic filters to ensure that The Lighthouse would look exactly like a film from the silent era? Has Robert Eggers sold out?
3. The answer to that question is a resounding ‘eh, maybe?’ There are certainly sops to audience accessibility that did not exist in the previous films, such as the very helpful title cards that inform the audience where and when various scenes are taking place, or how the screenplay (co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón) eschews Eggers’ usual use of hyper-specific regional vernacular for a more generic ‘Viking movie’ idiom. There are also multiple violent action scenes filmed in precise long takes and balletic camerawork that feel almost like a throwing of the gauntlet, as though this indie auteur is telling his audience ‘this shit you like is easy‘. Eggers’ skill with the camera is almost unparalleled in contemporary cinema, with every camera movement choreographed, visceral, and above all, motivated. This is not style for style’s sake, but style for the purposes of storytelling. The multiple lateral tracking shots in the raid scene not only add kineticism to the film’s centrepiece action sequence, but more importantly, fill out the background (literally) to show the effects that violence and brutality have on the innocents caught in the midst of the battle. This is why I hesitate to say that Eggers has softened his approach, because how many other filmmakers would hold the camera for so long on an external shot of a locked house full of children burning down? You want violence? You got it. Here, The Northman seems to say, are your consequences.
4. Beyond its refusal to glorify the violence of its characters, The Northman also has a pretty alienating approach to the portrayal of their mythology and culture. One of the many things Eggers is a master at is portraying just what it’s like to live in a system of belief from his characters’ point-of-view in a way that sharply contrasts with a modern audience’s sensibilities. We are, after all, attuned to believe that there is a veil that separates natural from supernatural to the extent that it is easy to forget how new this particular demarcation of ordinary from extraordinary is. Not so for the characters in the richly textured world of Robert Eggers. Devils and witches not only exist in The Witch, but are part of its characters daily lived experiences. Ditto mermaids and sea monsters in The Lighthouse. And in The Northman (1), Odin, valkyries, and draugrs are not just there, but have real, physical presences that directly exist in the daily lives of its characters in a way that might seem befuddling to a modern audience. This physicality is further emphasised by how much the body is involved in communing with the supernatural, from the belches and farts in the ceremony that Aurvandill and Amleth go through to the all too literal family tree of kings that appears in Amleth’s visions. It’s trippy shit, but that’s precisely the point – that these characters believe so thoroughly in their mythology that it manifests itself in all aspects of their lives.
5. And speaking of mythological grandeur, my god does Northern Ireland (subbing in for Iceland) look good. Much was made of how TBSWMSEYITNYW (2) The Last Jedi used the Irish isles to convey a hostile yet beautiful alien world, but The Northman absolutely blows it out of the water. The cinematography (from The Lighthouse DP Jarin Blaschke) in this movie is incredible in both ends of the scale, from the wide shots that capture sweeping vistas and stormy seas to the tight close-ups of Skarsgård and Bang, covered in blood and gore. Beyond that, it is ridiculously impressive just how well Eggers and Blaschke film night scenes which are dark but not murky, and with intelligently placed light sources to ensure that action and facial expression remains legible. This might seem like a minor thing, but so many films with action scenes that take place at night either overlight everything or else darken the scene to an extent that it’s impossible to tell what is going on. This film looks beautiful, and it is such a joy to witness a production that uses its big budget to build real sets, choreograph practical stunt work and film on location, using CGI only to sweeten or smoothen out rough edges.
6. The acting in The Northman is also uniformly excellent. Alexander Skarsgård is very well cast in the lead role of Amleth, especially considering how his previous blockbuster work (the unloved Battleship and The Legend of Tarzan) did not go so well. Hollywood seems to have sussed out that Skarsgård is best cast as a villain thanks to the interesting intersection of his good looks and frosty affect, and The Northman uses those aspects to present Amleth as distinctly antiheroic, a man so thoroughly consumed by vengeance it has turned him into a beast. Skarsgård leans hard into Amleth’s rage and pain, while giving just enough behind the eyes to suggest at a deeper, long buried humanity. Eggers veterans Anya Taylor-Joy (whose film debut was in The Witch) and Willem Dafoe are experienced enough with his style to deliver as expected, while Björk (yes, that Björk) and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson add a dash of weird trippiness around the margins with their portrayals of witches and seers. On the regal front, Ethan Hawke and Claes Bang do fine jobs as well as their respective kings, conveying both warmth and cruelty in equal measure to muddy the waters as to which one of the two is actually ‘the good king’ and thus complicating Amleth’s simplistic revenge narrative. I am a lot more torn about Nicole Kidman’s Gudrun. On the one hand, Kidman is a fantastic actor, and her big scene with Skarsgård crackles with energy and life in no part thanks to how well she sells her character’s emotions. On the other, it’s a little jarring to see Hollywood star Nicole Kidman, looking exactly like Hollywood star Nicole Kidman, in a film that aims to be authentic as possible. As good as Kidman’s performance is (and there is an argument that she gives the best in the film), perhaps the casting of a less well-known or less glamorous actor might have improved the film’s sense of verisimilitude.
7. If that last point feels like nitpicking, that’s because it is. Eggers’ artistry is so phenomenal and his craftsmanship so unerring that any minor imperfection feels amplified by contrast. A more pertinent issue, however, involves the film’s screenplay. There is nothing particularly wrong with it, but there is nothing about it that stands out either. It’s all just a little too predictable, and while there are some genuinely unexpected swerves (a very violent ball game, one particularly crazy stunt Amleth uses to take revenge on Fjölnir, and the aforementioned scene between Amleth and Gudrun), it all moves to its destination in precisely the way you would expect. Yes, it comes from an ancient legend that is the source material of what is possibly the greatest work of English Literature of all time (which basically serves as the plot of The Lion King), but surely there was a way to make it less … rote? Part of the greatness of The Witch and The Lighthouse was in the way they amalgamated their influences and source material into narratives that were thrilling and terrifying in their newness, in the sense that anything could (and often did) happen. The reason why ‘wouldst thou like to live deliciously’ and ‘you’re fond of me lobster ain’t ye’ have become such cinephile memes is because of how delightfully strange and offbeat those two respective scenes are in Eggers’ previous films, and unfortunately, nothing as iconic exists in The Northman.
8. But once again, it needs be remarked that The Northman, uninspiring screenplay aside, is a bona fide triumph of blockbuster filmmaking. Even if its tale is one we have seen many times before, its telling certainly isn’t. Few other period action films meant for a mainstream audience have dared to be so hallucinatory and violent, to the extent of possibly alienating the general public. Even more importantly, as big budget blockbusters begin to resemble animated films more and more, The Northman is a blast of bracing sea air in its craftsmanship and artistry, from the beauty and grandeur of its perfectly photographed locations and sets to the exact precision of its editing, camerawork, and shot composition. It is only disappointing in the way that an A- essay from a top student is, but it is important to keep in mind that an A- is far and away an excellent grade, especially considering how blighted the contemporary film landscape is. Such is unfortunately the way of things, that one of the most gifted young filmmakers is forced to compromise his vision for the sake of mass appeal, and even then, the film underperformed at the box office largely thanks to the fact that what turned up on screen was already too far out for most multiplex audiences to stomach. Maybe Robert Eggers will never get a $90 million dollar budget ever again, and maybe this box office failure puts his planned Nosferatu remake in jeopardy. It’s hard to say. What is far more obvious though, is the fact that if this guy’s worst work is better than almost 95% of films currently available in cinemas, is that, regardless of budget, subject matter, or medium of release, I am down for whatever meticulously mapped madness Robert Eggers comes up with next.
Verdict: Highly Recommended
25th July – Fresh
29th July – Men
31st July – Broker
Whenever I have the chance to see them: Thor: Love and Thunder and Decision to Leave