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A daring, superlative big-budget epic that earns its slow pacing and stylistic oddities.
The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers and starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, and Willem Dafoe, could initially be mistaken for an easily digestible mainstream fare. This is, after all, a nearly hundred-million-dollar production released at the start of the summer blockbuster season.
Look beyond the resplendent visuals and dire marketing campaign, and Eggers’ latest proves itself a smart, deeply evocative meditation on the cycle of violence in a world shaped by faith. In re-telling the oral history of Amleth, Eggers finds a surprisingly fitting home in a mythical pan-Scandinavian world.
The result is a visionary folktale of its own that grows in the making.
Brilliantly carried by Skarsgård, Taylor-Joy, and Kidman, The Northman is a miracle for the sheer fact that it even exists. Epic, brutally violent, nuanced, and dreamlike, The Northman is a showcase for a unique directorial voice worth celebrating.
The frames are barebones. Amleth grows up in his father’s kingdom as an only son. His mother (Kidman) is the queen of a world that doesn’t want her. As the seasons pass, his father returns from his conquests. Worn down and seeking an end on the battlefield, the fading king grooms Amleth for a future of bloodshed.
Death comes sooner than many would expect, leaving the young prince fatherless in the wild. Years pass and the boy grows into a man. In a world of living myths and endless violence, he finally has the ability for revenge. But at what cost?
While the narrative never surprises, it doesn’t need to. Instead, Eggers, alongside Icelandic novelist Sjón, embraces the familiarity by breaking the story into chapters and leaning into the theatricality. A stunning opening monologue lays out the full story for the gods. In this case, it's us, watching dispassionately across the ages.
This structure allows Eggers the freedom to subtly resume his exploration of the masculine and feminine in a world that understands neither. This is a universe of blood and steel. A battlefield of broken men trampling over the maternal connection to nature. Worship is akin to murder and entire generations are slaughtered to ensure a few decades without vengeance. To survive, even fertility must find ways to fight back.
Eggers doesn’t shy away from depictions of violence, but he makes sure never to glorify them, either. Even as the obnoxious marketing campaign would tell you otherwise.
A stunning early raid sequence, shot in an unbroken take from beginning to end, is technically stunning not just for the action, but for what happens beyond our protagonist.
Superficially it’s a traditional hero shot of Amleth wiping out his opponents in a spectacular manner. Shirtless, buff, and barely blinking, he moves from one gorgeously choreographed fight to the next. Horses topple, spears soar through the air, and swords clash.
But around him, women and children flee in fear. They too are cut down. The elderly die in horrific acts of torture. This isn’t some forward war camp. It’s just a town. Casually and methodically, Amleth’s cohorts gather the children into a building and set it on fire. Then, it’s time to celebrate.
It’s a horrifying moment in its simplicity that sets the tone for all that follows. Amleth is no hero. He is a product of his time and culture – one that Eggers argues hasn’t changed all that much in the centuries since.
In an ultimate act of irony, the closer Amleth gets to his vengeance, the more mythic the world becomes. And, in turn, the further he turns away from it. There’s a sense at all times that if he wanted to, he could find a universe of adventure just beyond his limited vision. Eggers teases us with visions of living mythology around every corner. A spectacle where all stories and folktales live together in a shared existence.
But Amleth can only see to the end of his blade. Which might be the greatest tragedy of it all.