The Northman

The Northman ★★★★★

The Northman is a blood-soaked masterpiece that offers so much more than conventional storytelling, creating immense levels of visual and audible immersion with stunning cinematography and camera work that transports you straight into the brutal Viking era. 

Bearing in mind I’ve not yet had the chance to see Everything Everywhere All at Once, this is the best film I’ve seen so far this year, beating The Batman quite easily to be honest. This is my early contender for Best Picture. It had the feeling that I was watching something special unfold, being one of the most immersive pieces of film I’ve ever been lucky enough to see in cinema. 

It’s brutal, savage and nihilistic approach hits hard and kept me so engaged throughout the fulfilling run time of 2 hours and 20 minutes. It has so much energy and really doesn’t give you chance to breathe throughout the course of the film, every single scene felt needed to the purpose of the film, not one part felt like a filler.

Eggers doesn’t miss. He’s solidified himself as one of the most exciting up and coming directors, yes his two previous films have sparked divisive opinions over whether people enjoy them, but I don’t think it can be argued how well made they are, he meticulously crafts films that propel you into a different period of time, all with their own signature stamp, and each one transports you perfectly. The Northman, being the third of his three, is undoubtedly the finest. A huge budget separates this with the likes of his other work. I don’t know for sure at what point the studio interference put Eggers off other big budget studio involved projects, but there is a Titanic-esque scene in this film that is visibly shot in front of a green screen and does feel a little out of place in such a naturally shot film. Considering Eggers wanted it all shot on location in Ireland (which for the most part he seemed to), maybe this is where the unwanted studio interference began to put him off future projects as he’s said in an interview.

From a technical perspective, The Northman is just outstanding. It raises the bar with levels of visual and aural immersion that I’ve only ever seen in the likes of Dunkirk. Maybe I’m suffering from recency bias, but in my honest opinion this film belongs in that category. It’s visually flawless. Beautiful cinematography combined with breathtaking camera work and continuous one shot takes allow every single scene to feel unique. The continuous one shot takes are astonishing and completely take the film to the next level- it’s ridiculously hard to do but just  adds to the whole realism of the film. There’s countless scenes where you see 360 degree views of the setting and it creates such a spectacular sense of immersion, ensuring you really feel like you’ve been thrown straight into the barbaric era of the Vikings. 

Sound design, set design, storyline, camerawork, lighting and cinematography are all exceptional aspects of the film and I could talk about every single one of them in such depth but it just goes to show the lengths that Eggers goes to in order to craft his films that are excruciatingly specific in detail to the time that they’re set in. I even read that he got professional historians in to basically make sure everything on and even off camera was 100% realistic and believable to the years it’s set in, to the point where they were checking the engravings on swords just to ensure they match the exact time set, not a few years too early or too late. If you’ve watched Eggers’ previous work, you shouldn’t be shocked by his remarkable eye for detail or his special talent of creating a film so visually and audibly immersive to the time it’s set. 

The sound mixing is unnerving, along with the soundtrack which is sublime, providing an auditory feast that makes every single scene even better, adding so much to the film. Every single scene feels so unique and naturally lit and this is one of many features of his work that Eggers has perfectly mastered in order to craft a beautifully shot film that just feels so real. 

Performances in The Northman are strong throughout. Very strong. Particularly Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy. Skarsgard gives what I believe is the best performance of his career and he should undoubtedly be in the conversation for at the very least an Oscar nomination. He’s both fierce and vulnerable, and so convincing in his role. Anya Taylor-Joy is perplexingly good in her role as Olga, a Slavic slave with supernatural powers. She’s such a talented actress and her CV is exceptional for an actress of her age. Nicole Kidman surprised me the most. Obviously she’s a great actor, we all know that, but in The Northman she gives a performance that we’ve never seen anything like before from her, she’s bewildering and creates such an impressive character. Her role in this film as Queen Gudrun, the kidnapped wife, stretch her acting capabilities far more than I had ever thought she would be able to pull off. Truly astounding. 

Bjork is awesome for what little time she’s in the film but she absolutely makes her mark. Ethan Hawke is great too despite not having as much screen time as many, offering a new role that we’ve not really seen of him before. Willem Dafoe is just fantastic but did we except anything less? His performance as the jester is both entertaining and menacing, it’s exactly what you’d believe that sort of character to be like given the time it’s set. Claes Bang is brutal and terrifying as the big baddie. Although, in Eggers fashion, doesn’t follow the stereotypical antagonist as by the time Skarsgard’s Amleth is grown and of age to strike revenge on his uncle, Bang’s Fjolnir, he doesn’t really have much left, just a small farm with a few slaves, no vast kingdom of such like we see of typical villains in films like this. 

The equivocal idea that everything is not what it seems is the most intriguing aspect of The Northman to me. Most people know how the Vikings had a tendency to take mushrooms before going into battle to unleash their inner ‘Berserker’, and I’m 100% sure that Eggers loved playing around with the whole idea of ambiguity and it gave the film a chance to explore true Viking absurdity in magnificent fashion. The viewer isn’t meant to know whether what they’re seeing is real or not and it’s that ambiguity that helps put you right in the enigmatic perspective of the characters. I want to keep this review spoiler free so I won’t say exactly what’s in store but just watch it and see for yourself but there’s some pretty stunning and trippy scenes. Eggers is subtle in his ambiguity and doesn’t feel the need to make clear whether it’s one thing or another, instead leaving you unsure. 

We’ve hit a period of cinema where franchise movies keep churning out new instalments that don’t particularly offer anything new, they’re basically made to produce easy money for the big blockbuster studios and target a very wide audience without being ambitious. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s becoming quite an increasingly popular opinion that studios like Marvel need to up their game to keep fans on board, and that big franchises like Fast & Furious have gone on for far too long and to instead give something new a chance. That’s why it’s so refreshing to go to the cinema and experience a film like this. Yes, it’s a big budget film but it’s something completely fresh in terms of cinema and it appeals to me so much more than any recent franchise film I’ve seen recently (apart from Spider-Man: No Way Home, purely for nostalgic value). And I’d love to see it beat the likes of Morbius and Fantastic Beasts at the box office, because of the simple fact that so much more time and effort has been put into it. The Northman is proof that ingenuity, fresh ideas and meticulous detail can still create an immense blockbuster that doesn’t follow generic style. It gives me hope that a big budget studio can still create a visual masterpiece in storytelling, beyond conventional cheap thrills that we tend to see so often at the moment. 

Big shout to the finale too. Breathtaking. Never have I seen a finale like that before, it’s raw, visually stunning and it hits so hard. I’ve well and truly ran out of superlatives to describe this film. 

The Northman provides a wonderful fresh take on Hamelt, it’s incredible storytelling to say the least, packed full of excruciating detail and exciting action, phenomenal performances and flawless visuals. Eggers provides a new take on historical epics, Viking films and revenge films all in one. Historical films have been done before, but not like this. Revenge films have never been so good, it doesn’t just offer mindless killing like typical Viking films do. The Northman completely raises the bar and ensures a truly unique, mind-blowing experience.

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