The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

Robert Eggers' third film is, despite some concessions to genre, still very Robert Eggers. The elevator pitch could have been the violent popcorn thrills of something like Conan the Barbarian (1982) meets the tripped out weirdness of Valhalla Rising (2009), if anyone had actually seen Valhalla Rising that is. Eggers' first feature, The VVitch (2015), was one of the most assured horror debuts in recent years, misunderstood by the jump-scare crowd (for them not only the slow pace but the historically accurate 17th century English was a massive turn-off), but appealing very strongly to those of us craving something fresh. His followup, The Lighthouse (2019) was a very Lovecraftian tale that also was divisive in its allegorical open-endedness: Eggers gave audiences the outline and a good number of literary references but opted not to explain everything, and this infuriates those who are used to being spoon-fed literalism, never having to think for themselves. So it's fair to point out that his latest outing, from all reports with some compromises mandated by the substantial budget invested in it, is a far more straightforward historical tale of bloody revenge. However fear not, there's still plenty of mysticism and a literary pedigree as well as endless stunning visuals (and gore), just in a more mainstream skin.

And the first Conan movie would be a good reference point also in terms of plot, as when our young protagonist sees his family put to the sword he grows up to be super built and super motivated to have his revenge, and it's clear from his martial skills he has definitely grokked the riddle of steel. Like Ah-nuld Alexander Skarsgård is a brute of few words but lets his muscles do the work, although later when he joins forces with a beautiful blonde (Anya Taylor-Joy) who also has her own vengeance vendetta, the difference in acting talents between the two men becomes evident. Another amusing comparison would be Aquaman (2018) in which a guy whose mother is Nicole Kidman has Willem Dafoe as a mentor on his way to reclaiming a stolen kingdom from a scheming half-brother of the rightful ruler. What's helpful about the (surgery-assisted) ageless nature of our Nicole is that she can reasonably convincingly play the same character, twenty something years apart. Unlike in Aquaman though, here her Queen Gudrún is an integral part of the plot, and that story, while mostly adhering to the standard revenge model does have some surprises along the way. And it's not just Skarsgård who is stacked, this whole cast is, including with returning favourites from The VVitch as well as a few authentic Icelanders in the shape of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson and Björk, atoning for starring in the worst movie of all time, Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000).

While there was some filming in Iceland the majority of the movie was shot in Ireland, which as Game of Thrones has demonstrated does not lack for spectacular scenery, and it's very well used here in this most visual of films. Interestingly, at least considering the current global focus on that part of the world, the film decamps to Kyivan Rus' for the second act, and then the climax will make everyone think of another famous climactic cinematic battle, but despite the aroma of cheese Eggers sells the Niflheim out of it. Without his trademark use of period-accurate language, Eggers, in collaboration with Icelandic poet Sjón, instead tried to evoke the speech patterns of the time and the ancient sagas, and while it might take a moment for viewers to key into this, it absolutely works. The last element worthy of praise is the music, which is so Wardruna you're surprised when you get to the credits and it's not actually Wardruna. Because The Northman is also the most heavy metal of all movies you almost expect the music to transition into full black metal but it never quite does. It still fucking rocks though.

Block or Report

Nick liked these reviews