The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

Afterthoughts: Well that was quite an experience. Very glad I got to see this in the cinema – the stunning visuals and soundscape wouldn’t have been the same at home, and I'm pleased to have supported this kind of film.

With his third feature, Robert Eggers is beginning to put together a very tidy filmography indeed; subverting genre conventions and weirding out audiences in the process.

With its distinct lack of battle sequences and mainstream heroics, and its preoccupation with the Pagan, mystical and ritualistic aspects of Viking life, The Northman is no bog standard Viking action adventure tale. It is for sure the most accurate depiction (probably tied with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising) of this particular time, place and culture.

A master already of atmosphere and world-building, Eggers presents to us an ugly, ugly world, and within it, its primitive peoples have strange and animalistic beliefs and attitudes, and live and die by these principles without question.

The plot (the most obvious area for spectator criticism) is indeed very simplistic, but did we really expect anything different from a filmmaker whose previous works show no evidence of elaborate, clever plotting. Eggers is far more concerned with capturing and exploring the minutiae of his characters’ lifestyles, and the hellish scenarios they find themselves in. The film in general is nightmarish and disconcerting, and is far from the romanticism we expect from historical epics.

On a surface level (via marketing tools, such as posters and trailers), The Northman looks the popcorn blockbuster average Joes want, but it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to realise this is something different, and for those wanting to see big, strong Vikings hit other big, strong Vikings with sword and axe for 2 hours, disappointment and frustration is inevitable. A lot of people (not us Letterboxd folk, who know how to manage expectations of certain filmmakers) probably thought they were getting Gladiator Ridley Scott, but what they got was The Last Duel Ridley Scott, with its more visceral approach to mise-en-scène and cinematography, yet more cerebral line of attack with regards to morality and heroism.

Story-wise, it is a rather predictable film. You only need to have seen The Lion King to pretty much know straight away the general gist of what is going to happen, but how we get there is interesting enough to keep us wholly engaged. The landscapes, with their stunning vistas; the intensity of the imagery; and the strangeness of the soundtrack, all combine to allow for full immersion into this tale of brutality in a world of constant danger and dread.

As is almost always the case with films presented in this way, The Northman needs digesting, and it’s its sights and sounds that linger for days, rather than elements of the plot. Naturally because it’s Robert Eggers, it’s more akin to experiencing a horror film than an action adventure, so the likelihood is, it’ll be the odd rituals and head-on close-ups of Björk/Dafoe-faced witches that haunt you, rather than a hulking bearded axe-wielding Viking warrior.

Just like the aforementioned The Last Duel, The Northman is on course to be a box office flop (having currently made back just under half of its alleged $90m budget), and it really is a shame. Clearly these films will be more celebrated in the arthouses than in the multiplexes, but it still sucks that mainstream audiences don’t have the appetite for a more adult, thinky epic. I guess they just want to see cars go real fast or people with superpowers beating the shit out of each other for hours on end.

[possible score increase pending]

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