Northman, The (United States, 2022)April 22, 2022
The Northman is Hamlet. Or at least both were derived from the same source material, a Norse legend set in the early 900s about the revenge of a prince upon the uncle who murdered his father and wed his mother. However, while there was a surfeit of talking in Shakespeare’s version of the tragedy, Robert Eggers’ movie features very little of it, allowing the visuals to impel the narrative forward.
For anyone who has seen The Witch or The Lighthouse, it will be evident that The Northman comes from the same director and that the injection of money into the production hasn’t dampened his singular vision. The movie is dark, twisted, and steeped in the supernatural. It delights in making the viewer feel off-balance. There are no heroes or villains. Everyone has a point-of-view that emphasizes the rightness of their actions while demonizing those of others. Because the story is presented through the eyes of Amleth (the Hamlet character – take the “h” from the end and put it at the beginning – played by Alexander Skarsgard), we generally perceive him as being a righteous avenger…at least until his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), disabuses him of a few foundational truths.
Whether intentional or not, the movie seems influenced both by Conan the Barbarian and Game of Thrones – the latter more in tone than in specifics; the former in certain plot details (“The Thing in the Crypt” in particular). Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman employs supernatural elements – witchcraft, magic, and the visions of seers (one of whom is played by Bjork). Yorick gets renamed as “Heimir” and is played by Willem Dafoe – that actor’s participation establishes him as an “Eggers regular.” Ditto for Anya Taylor-Joy, who got her breakthrough in The Witch and has returned here to play Olga, Amleth’s love interest whose influence is not unlike that of Lady Macbeth.
Eggers is cognizant of period detail so, as in David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, everyone is very dirty all the time. There’s a fair amount of nudity but none is excessive, gratuitous, or lingering. During one post-coital scene, for example, the actor and actress arrange themselves so that the only things shown to the camera are a buttock or two. The most startling piece of human physique is Alexander Skarsgard’s perfectly sculpted chest, which is shown to good effect on a number of occasions.
The movie opens with the return home of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) from a glorious victory. The introductory scenes establish two key things: the apparent affection between Aurvandil and his queen and the tension between him and his brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Not long after the king teaches his son of the importance of avenging the murder of a loved one, Amleth is given an opportunity to act on that lesson. Fjolnir commits fratricide and takes everything that his brother once owned (including his wife) as his own. Amleth escapes to “the land of Rus,” where he develops a frightening reputation as a warrior. But he is haunted by dreams hinting at his fate and ends up doing whatever is necessary to track down Fjolnir – who has been deposed and now runs a small hamlet on the forbidding island of Iceland – and enact his revenge. Helping him is Olga, a fellow slave who knows a thing or two about potions.
One of the strengths of The Northman is that it plays out as expected without ever being predictable. It’s a bold, uncompromising film that doesn’t self-censor when it comes to blood and gore. Still, a lot of the most gruesome moments are hinted at more than shown, allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. If there’s one area in which the movie stumbles, it’s that the supernatural fever dreams become something of a narrative crutch.
Eggers keeps the experience visually interesting. Many scenes are filmed in a state of near-total color desaturation, resulting in images that are monochromatic. The naked, untamed terrain of Iceland is presented in all its widescreen glory. The director favors longer shots over short ones and there’s one extended single-take that follows the sacking and pillaging of a town from start to finish – the latter moment occurring when a house full of children is set ablaze by the invaders.
Alexander Skarsgard has transformed himself into a hulking monster – quite unlike any previous version of Hamlet to grace the screen. He has a keen intellect but is blinded by his need for vengeance. Only toward the end does he begin to see beyond his lifelong obsession. Nicole Kidman doesn’t have a lot to do but her one showy scene is rich with twists, turns, and barbed daggers. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga is comely, loyal, and deadly.
Like Akira Kurosawa’s three films with strong Shakespearean connections (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran), The Northman illustrates that a compelling production can be mounted without the benefit of the Bard’s dialogue. The Northman is gripping cinema of the sort that we get too little of today, when too often a director’s vision is diluted by box office imperatives and the lure of four-quadrant appeal.
Northman, The (United States, 2022)
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gustav Lindh, Elliott Rose, Willem Dafoe, Bjork
Home Release Date: 2022-06-07
Screenplay: Sjon & Robert Eggers
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Music: Robin Carolan, Sebastian Gainsborough
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features