The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

The Northman may just be my favourite of Robert Eggers’ films. His films are literally getting better and better, he is most definitely the most exciting director we have around right now. 

The Northman is a Viking revenge tragedy with supernatural elements that make for an hallucinating experience as well as an engaging one. With Eggers basing this film off the legend that inspired the Shakespearean tale of Hamlet, the parallels are already laid out for you, but remain incredibly interesting nonetheless. Likewise to Hamlet we are confronted with themes of revenge, violence and the supernatural as well as deep character studies with strong thematic exploration. The Northman tackles all these elements with such brilliance. As a result of this we almost get to see the two sides of Viking life, the blood lusty warrior side where men are more like animals than humans, as well as the spiritualists who believe in fate, prophecy and a Viking Heaven. This allows the Viking world to fall into a Robert Eggers’ world perfectly, as concrete reality is never certain in a world that Eggers creates. Through spectacular atmosphere we are never sure if supernatural happenings are real or in that of a character’s mind, we are in a liminal space where ambiguity is simply the norm. The Northman is no exception to this, only I found myself questioning less whether what I saw was real or not. I believed all that was presented before me. This goes to show the level of immersion the Northman allows you to experience. Of course these characters believe in all the supernatural happenings, and because the world was so well built, I did as well. Another element that made this aspect so successful was the use of symbolism. Even though some of the symbols may go over your head if you aren’t completely aware of Viking history, it doesn’t completely matter, they’re still effective in either creating ambience or as a tool for foreshadowing. For example, the use of ravens is so prevalent in moments where Hamneth needs help that you’re aware of the significance whether you noticed his Father was referred to as The Raven king or if you know the Viking god Odin is represented through Ravens or not. 

What’s so great is the fact we have never gotten a proper Viking epic film before, and not only do we now have one that gives us pure blood-thirsty, animalistic violent battle scenes (shown through tracking shots which although unconventional for battle scenes makes for a thrilling, immersive and somewhat intimate result) we have one that shows so much more then just men who live for nothing more than violence. It is a historical epic that gives us raw spectacle. But although historical epics are as they state, epic, what do they have to offer? They are stories of the past, what could they possibly have that appeals to a modern audience on a level that exceeds spectacle? Well Eggers has used the past to inform the present in both of his films and this is absolutely no exception. If we look to the Northman there is something to gage here about morals, ideals and even fate if that is something you believe in. Hamneth dedicates his whole life to being a good warrior so he can avenge his father, save his mother and get his kingdom back. But when he actually gets on track to fulfilling this prophecy he discovers not only is his Mother not worth saving, his Father turns out to not be the great man he thought him to be. The perfect family he had known as a child turned out to be a lie and now there is no kingdom to claim back. You would think this would trigger a change in Hamneth, a change in direction, in character, in what he stands for. Additionally, he now has a love interest in the fellow slave Olga, who could runaway with him then to start a new life. Yet this doesn’t happen. Instead he sides with what the the prophecy has foreseen to him, deciding to avenge his father so he can go to Valhalla. But as he says himself, he doesn’t know a life without hate. This poses the age old question: is revenge really a worthy thing to dedicate one’s life to, is it worth losing everything for? 

What was interesting was, although this film captured the let’s say ‘simple’ essence of what a Viking man and woman are like and what their life entails (the man is a bear like warrior and the woman is you know an object) these barriers were confronted in an intelligent way that didn’t stray from the historical truth. Through Hamneth seeking the prophecy and battling with the obstacles he met along the way, he is being vulnerable, he questions himself and everything he has ever known when he discovers the truth. Although we are in an ancient world where men had to be men we still get to see that vulnerable side to our main character. Why shouldn’t we? Vulnerability is a universal emotion that not even age old legend can erase. Additionally, the main female characters presented were more than just shadows to the men they are led by. They are cunning, they are smart and they are often the back bone and the brains to the leaders. It was just great to see both Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor Joy blew me away. 

I am continually impressed by Eggers’ screenplays and how they transport you to the world he’s taking you to. He is so specific in his use of language and it is always so accurate to the time period he’s exploring. This takes so much time and research and I respect him so much for it. 

I think I’ve waffled on enough about this film. I assume my thoughts are not as concisely articulated as I wish them to be as they are fresh in my brain, but that just goes to show how much this film makes you think and how much of an experience it is. See this in the cinemas while you can!

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