The Northman

The Northman ★★★★★

It's a bit hard to write a "review" for The Northman because I didn't watch it so much as have it wash over me. This film just nonchalantly switched off my conscious, analytical brain and immersed me in this heady Dark Ages world.

Three in, this is probably the consistent thread between Robert Eggers' films which appeals to me the most - the thing I see as his specific, possibly unique brand. He has a way of bringing the past to life which is totally intoxicating. It's a powerful mix of forensically researched detail and impressionistic flair. The details convince you that what you are seeing is utterly authentic. The impressionism is the more psychedelic aspect - a simulation of an expansion in your consciousness brought about by immersing you in ancient and mysterious human behaviour to the point where you rapidly start to understand the world and, in some way, live in it for this short time.

The past is an alien world. There's a book called The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth which is a fictional account of the Norman invasion of Britain from the point of view of a farmer who then becomes a forest-based resistance fighter against them (a "Green Man", the kind of guys who the Robin Hood legend was originally based on). It's all written in an invented variant of Old English, which has been altered just enough to make it understandable to us (genuine Old English would be unintelligible). The remarkable thing about that book is that the very otherness of the language in which it's written manages to make 11th century England feel like an utterly alien place. It's more than time that separates us - it's a thousand years of cultural transformation beyond anything we can easily comprehend.

This is what Eggers seems to be able to achieve through the manipulation of cinematic elements. The production design is obsessively realised, special effects are used as sparingly as possible (although some CGI in this film was still noticeable, it felt like Eggers only used it when he had to), costume and performance and music and, in The Northman especially, a window into the inner mind of Amleth to see how he interprets the world through his own prism of spiritual and religious belief (the ancestral tree, the world tree of Yggdrasil, the zombie king, the valkyrie, etc). And then, of course, the narrative, which only hints at textbook history as backdrop, part of the fabric of the time in which the characters live but not necessarily something that they think or talk about. And yet the history permeates everything we see, every place we go, every conversation and conflict and ritual and dream represented on screen.

Maybe I am right in the centre of the bullseye for these films, a wide open mark, because I have a huge interest in history anyway, and any representation of this stuff which blows past the dry commentary of the textual stuff I have read and just brings it to life in what feels like a literal way is going to knock my socks off. This film certainly did. I couldn't have told you three quarters of the way through how much I even liked it, because I needed all my mind to absorb it in as profoundly an osmotically way as it could. This film is an inner journey, I feel like I have just come back from a foreign place.

I've heard Eggers is determined to make nothing but period pieces, and that excites the hell out of me. The Northman is a psychedelic epic - it literally seeks to exist outside of time and it will become timeless as a result. Beautiful and terrible, majestic and primal, classic and dissonant, all at the same time.

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