Robert Eggers | 2hr 17min
The primal, pounding rhythms of The Northman are infused into its cinematic construction on almost every level. They are there in Amleth’s insistent chants, his prophetic words pointing him towards a destiny of vengeance. They are present in the ominous score of throaty vocalisations and percussive beats, hypnotising us into a state of submission. On a structural level, Robert Eggers even weaves them into his division of this narrative into segments, landing each chapter break on black frames with titles written in Scandinavian runes. Even as it embraces the spectacle of mythological storytelling, The Northman is as deeply researched as any of Eggers’ other films, and as such it is this historical authenticity which allows the tempo of his narrative to progress with such organic tactility.
It doesn’t take long into this story to recognise the Hamlet parallels written into the archetypes of murdered kings, evil uncles, and avenging sons, and yet Shakespeare is not the primary source of inspiration for Eggers here. It is rather the other way round – the Scandinavian legend of Amleth the Viking prince is in fact the basis of the Shakespeare play, its origins stretching far back into Medieval mythology. Aside from the emotional depth that Eggers allows both male and female characters equally, there are no major narrative subversions playing out here. Instead, it is in the textured, muddy world which he builds around traditional conventions that the raw essence of this Norse folktale comes alive, seeping through the detailed design of every crude wooden village and animal-skin costume.
Cinematically speaking, Eggers carries on the epic ambition of classical filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog, both of whom spent months shooting in unforgiving wildernesses to capture equally unrelenting directorial visions in Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Just as those films tell tales of men coming to terms with their own humanity while on legendary quests through cruel environments, so too does The Northman set Amleth on a path of self-realisation, shrinking him against rocky Scandinavian mountains and heavy, overcast skies that weigh down upon low horizons. It is amid these fierce landscapes that he discovers an innate connection to the land, adopting the instincts of wolves and ravens through which he learns to survive.
Alexander Skarsgård absorbs this animalistic behaviour into his performance on a viciously carnal level. Even when he isn’t running on all fours, howling, and biting his enemies, he menacingly saunters through muddy battlefields with tightly hunched shoulders, standing out in crowds with his furrowed brow and dark, unsmiling eyes. “You are dogs who wish to become men,” growls Willem Dafoe’s court fool, and in Skarsgård’s ferocious transformation we believe every word of it. So too does he evoke Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting masterclass in The Revenant, as survival and revenge become all-consuming ideals for a man bearing the brunt of his mission psychologically just as much as he is physically.
The Revenant’s influence continues to make itself known in Eggers’ long tracking shots through astoundingly choreographed battles of flying arrows and swinging axes, crafting a visceral authenticity consistent with the painstaking sensory details that pervade his rugged production design. Whether softly illuminating desaturated exteriors or casting silhouettes of naked bodies against blazing fires, Eggers’ natural lighting brings an awe-inspiring majesty to both action and drama. Additionally, there is an even greater transcendence to those scenes which take place beneath the pale moonlight and Northern Lights, where fantasy doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.
The Northman flourishes in such depictions of magical realism, manifesting the ambiguous potential of Amleth’s destiny to be either a self-determined mission or a genuine prophecy. A cameo appearance from Björk as the mysterious soothsayer who foretells his fate makes for an especially brilliant piece of casting, emphasising her ethereal presence in her first role since Dancer in the Dark 22 years ago. It is her words which stick with us through Amleth’s journey, and which motivate further introspection on his part to reckon with his spirituality. It is left deliberately obstruse as to whether a haunting battle with a draugr, an undead Scandinavian creature, takes place in reality or simply in the mind of a man seeking religious purpose to his quest, and divine cutaways to a Valkyrie riding up into the Northern Lights similarly serve to underscore the glory which may lie on the other side of his quest.
Conversely, there is also the threat of Hel as the afterlife to which Amleth may be damned should he fail to avenge his father. Literalised as an erupting volcano upon which the final battle takes place, the set piece is a wonder to behold, filling the air with orange smoke and lava. Eggers knows when to hold a shot, and once again he brings great weight to the climactic moment by simply basking in its heated violence, refusing to cut until necessary. This aspect of his filmmaking may as well belong among those others mentioned above which pulse with fervent adrenaline, as these characters clash swords and let out guttural roars like primal orchestrations. The Northman may only reference horror cinema tangentially, and yet its thick, overpowering atmosphere is as potent as anything Eggers has directed before, delivering an awe-inspiring, sensory venture into Norse mythology.
The Northman is currently playing in theatres.