The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

The Northman is fantastic in all regards, except for its story. As an adaptation of the legend of Amleth, the inspiration for Hamlet, the film is travelling well-worn paths. To be very reductive The Northman is just about a man out to murder his father's killer, and the narrative becomes very repetitive very quickly. Violence, talk of vengeance, a romance subplot, all these things just repeat over and over. Nicole Kidman gets to deliver a great twist in the second half, but otherwise The Northman feels rather derivative despite its setting and style. At way over two hours it feels too long. There is a lot of faffing around, when this story could fit into a gnarly 90 minute revenge thriller. Or it could have been a lengthy, poetic meditation on vengeance. But the final combination of pure art movie and nasty action flick feels unbalanced in execution.

However The Northman is a hell of a visceral experience. As a harsh, violent fantasy it is dark and ambitious and often completely unique. Its stylings are fresh and rich in historical detail. We witness the vast Viking world, from the people of the Rus in the East to those of Iceland in the North. The film also travels beyond, mixing history with fantasy and religion. The Northman isn't quite the immersive plunge into the past that Robert Eggers achieved with The Witch and The Lighthouse, since the characters here rarely feel like more than just actors wearing costumes, but in moments of religious frenzy the film does feel like nothing else. Those images, the things most detached from the story, are truly spectacular, a hypnotic orgy of primal savagery and worlds beyond comprehension.

The Northman is stunning at times. It is visually extraordinary, bolstered by tactile production design and impressive long takes. As the story of a man's last tear, The Northman promises so much thematically. It gestures to ideas around fate and bloodlines. Yet it never really delivers. It descends to violence and slow, unremarkable storytelling more often than it hits on profundity or emotional release. Too often it becomes a bit of a slog. There's a lot to admire about The Northman, but a part of me is disappointed that it felt hollow inside. It's definitely an experience worth checking out in cinemas, but it's an all-surface movie which seems to be missing something underneath.

Björk has a cool cameo though. Go just for that.

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