The Northman

The Northman ★★★

Robert Eggers’ The Northman is a heavy metal Hamlet set in the North Atlantic around 900 AD. It goes for the jugular operating on the principle of why speak when you can scream? I found the resulting sound design exhausting. There is very little shading to its dynamics. Occasionally it’s very quiet, but mostly it’s turned up to eleven. It hammers rather than cajoles, and if that’s your thing, then good luck to you and your hearing, but I found the barrage too much of a barrier to my enjoyment. 

However, setting that gripe aside, I can appreciate how Eggers is attempting to turn savagery into a heightened art form. His visuals are impressive, often unanchored from reality, occupying a space in myth and folklore. It’s like he’s cloaking the Shakespearean allusions inside the Icelandic Sagas, which is a hell of a literary double-barrelled salvo. His film is like the Sagas in how they amplify the violence and immortalise the heroic misery. His images often succeed in capturing this feverish frontier, on the edge of reality and madness. 

The full throttle, revenge-driven plot, and the film’s dark and furious art design, means hugs and humour are in short supply. Why hug when you can bludgeon? Why kiss when a head butt is a far more intimate way of getting to know you? Like the sound’s compressed dynamics, the story is a hell-bent, one-track convulsion towards violent fate. There is no such thing as a natural death here, unless you include having your head hewn from your neck. Many of the deaths are far worse than that, but I found their impact was numbed by their sheer avalanche of horrors. Eggers even includes a facsimile of the sickening climax of Come and See, but here it passes by as if just a part of a murderous parade, and its visceral impact is significantly reduced. 

Eggers’ The Witch was deadly serious, and The Lighthouse was blackly comic, but it’s hard to pitch The Northman on the sense of humour spectrum. For all intents and purposes it’s a humourless slog through blood and spit, however, anything taken over the edge of extremity will always risk appearing hilarious in its propensity for exaggeration - and anything that climaxes in naked lava wrestling in the caldera of an exploding volcano has got to be a giant piss-take, right?

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