The Northman

The Northman ★★★★★

Robert Eggers has slowly and surely been building himself an exciting career as one of my favourite modern filmmakers. I legitimately think The Witch is a masterpiece, the vanguard of a new movement of atmospheric slow-burn horror films in the 2010s, and The Lighthouse was a strong follow up with him continuing to build on his inimitable style and sensibility, drawing some fantastic performances out of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in the process. So I was delighted when it was announced Universal were taking a chance on giving him a big budget to make his Viking revenge saga The Northman. And even more delighted when I realised within the first fifteen minutes or so that Eggers had effectively thanked them for the money, and went right ahead and made a big budget Robert Eggers movie with it; replete with all the gore and grime and surreal touches I could have hoped for.

It's... well, it's pretty wild. Wilder still that the released version of the film is apparently the one reached via compromise with the studio after some (expectedly) poor responses to an earlier screening, because through and through it feels like a film only Robert Eggers could and would have made. A big maximalist gnarly action epic, for sure, but one made with a lot of the same care and craft that went into his previous productions.

The story loosely follows the plot of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), a deposed Viking prince seeking revenge on his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) for the murder of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, in full on DILF mode). Along the way, Amleth is taken to Iceland and swept up in a slave revolution and drawn into a more magical world by sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor Joy) and a seeress played by Bjork.

Honestly, the whole thing rips. I was a little worried going in since at 137 minutes it's significantly longer than either of Eggers' previous two efforts, but there wasn't a single moment where I wasn't completely enraptured and delighted by what was unfolding on screen. Apparently starting out with a budget of $65 million and ballooning to $90 million during the pandemic, Eggers is adept at putting every dollar on the screen. The entire production shot on location, with parts of Ireland standing in for the Icelandic fjords, but there are some utterly breathtaking vistas on show, especially when the action moves to a more contained single location during the film's central act.

The action, when it comes, is visceral and bloody. Every sword clang sounded like an explosion, every gout of blood looking like a volcanic eruption up on the big screen. Eggers allows himself here to indulge in spectacle in a way he didn't with either The Witch or The Lighthouse, but it pays off in the way it brings the sheer brutality of the time to the big screen.

It seems as though, from the box office, The Northman is a risk that's unlikely to pay off for Universal. Which is a damned shame if you ask me. It's concerning enough when smaller arthouse fare seems to be stumbling, but now even big crowd-pleasing blockbusters like this are falling in the wake of the mighty Marvel machine. Frankly, if people can look at something like this and pass it up in favour of the next dull slice of CG-laden sameness, I simply cannot fathom what they even want from cinema any more.

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