The Northman

The Northman

I’m not quite sure what to do with Robert Eggers. There’s no one at all like him in the current climate of American movie-making, particularly at a Hollywood level, and that is admirable, but his pictures never quite hit the register that they should. All of them feel like they need to hit a higher gear at some point or another. Eggers influences are painterly. He mentions the work of Hyman Bloom as a huge influence on his work for The Northman, and there are multiple images that seem as though they are directly lifted from Bloom’s palette, and then filtered through the context of Viking art. He is cognizant of European artistic sensibilities, and also cribs from the Russians, and their war pictures. He also has an admiration for American trash like Conan the Barbarian (a film that I love), and the result is a concoction of elements that is unlike anything else in Hollywood, but ultimately, not entirely unique either. We’ve seen The Northman before, even as recently as 2009 with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, and elements are obviously present in the colder sections of Game of Thrones, but the contours of this picture, even if they are familiar, are mostly pleasurable, competent, and handsome. Eggers is skilled, but it remains to be seen if he can evolve further into a great filmmaker. In the meantime, here’s a Viking picture.

The Northman is loosely based around Hamlet, which was in turn, loosely based around an old Viking story The Legend of Amleth. Alexander Skarsgard stars as the vengeful, would be king, and a bloody mess he does make of things. Eggers finds his best images in the opening passage subtitled “The North Atlantic”, when the prince follows his father King (Ethan Hawke) into ritual and genealogy. In this section Eggers challenges himself, and directly introduces an aesthetic that is a little more mature. He can’t lean on violence, and he has to trust his imagistic instincts. My favourite of these finds Hawke’s battle-tested King arriving home, and there are some spectacular landscape shots of men on horseback pulling up a mountain, and arriving at a castle door, where servants and women-folk, are frozen in posture. The camera tracks through all of this and Eggers didn’t shoot much coverage to attempt to make the picture feel as organic as possible. So when we pull alongside these characters and pan left to the wounded King it does feel as though Eggers has achieved something painterly on his own. There are also numerous extreme close-ups in this passage that evoke silent cinema. On the WTF podcast Eggers noted that he watched silent films in pre-production to get into a mindset of visual storytelling, and it shows. Willem Dafoe’s jester gets the best of these. His unique facial structure has rarely ever been shot more exploitatively, or as loving. Eggers seems to have told his actors not to blink whenever he employs the extreme close-up and some fare better than others. Skasgard seems lost at times, but Anya Taylor Joy does a fine job compensating for the actor, as his beloved Olga.

The Northman is at its best when it is still, and suggestive. When Olga and Amleth are nude, dripping with sex, and cast in silver moonlight the picture finds a great artistry of bodies, but The Northman is a violent, plotty thing, and those elements take priority. There’s numerous sequences of pillaging, but Eggers doesn’t have the stomach to be as gruesome as the text calls for. He’ll often cut away from innocents being slaughtered. He is not driven entirely by morals, but there is a line that he won’t cross that holds his work back. The dream sequences are more hit and miss. At worst a galloping Valkyrie descending from Valhalla feels only a little distance away from the MCU, and at their strongest there’s a Haxan-like evocation of witchcraft and sublime mystery of nature. Bjork does much of the heavy-lifting in that regard for her two scenes. She’s skilled beyond words, and fits into this brand of folklore and ancient, mystical, dwelling like none of the actors are capable of. She’s most comfortable with the material, and her rolling, snake-like tongue, begs for more screen-time, but as a ghost, and bearer of fate she can only be around so much. Nicole Kidman also gives one of her best performances in some time as an incestual madwoman, driven berserk by the times, and dripping with salacious fury in her scene of revelation. This contrasts with her elegant work as a Queen and mother, and suggests that a proper feminine presentation can be hiding a cannibalistic fury behind doors.

With The Northman, Eggars has won some measure of good-will from this critic. I still believe he has a long way to go, and his pictures aren’t showing me anything that I can’t find in Hard to be a God, Witchhammer, or Dead Man’s Letters, but in the greater context of current Hollywood he feels relatively unique. His influences aren’t coming from the usual places, and he is interested in more than Cinema in preparing his own work. I respect this, even if I’m always left a little wanting with his pictures. I’ll see the next one, and the one after, and hope that he transcends into a truly interesting voice someday. He might. He is capable and we should put some measure of hope in this director, and what he could potentially promise in the future.

Originally published on my patreon.

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