The Northman, a bloody saga of vengeance set largely against the green and grey and molten black of a newly-settled Iceland, is one of those films that is destined to please a niche audience, while leaving the general moviegoing public scratching their heads.
This is born out in the gap between critics and audience. Critics enjoyed the Robert Eggers directed picture a great deal more, on average, than viewers. The Northman enjoys an 89% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but its audience score is much lower at 67%.
I double checked The Green Knight’s Rotten Tomatoes rating—the two films are quite different but share a focus on brooding cinematography, sparse dialogue and magical realism bordering on fantasy—and it faced much the same fate. 89% of critics liked the movie; just 50% of moviegoers agreed.
I mention all this simply to note that this is a movie that is, almost by design, divisive and one that isn’t trying to please as wide a swath of viewers as possible. Even for fans of Viking stories and TV shows (think Vikings, The Last Kingdom) this movie might be too dark, too weird or too fantastical, too disturbing. But as far as I’m concerned, The Northman simply takes everything to the next level.
It is a visually stunning, breathlessly violent, bone-crushingly metal take on Viking legend. It is also the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as told by director Eggers and writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson—aka Sjón.
We all know Hamlet, but I’ll throw in a spoiler warning here anyways. In Hamlet and in The Northman, a young Norse prince seeks to avenge his father who was slain by none other than his uncle. He vows to rescue his mother and take back his kingdom. Soon, he is entirely consumed by his hatred and revenge. It does not end well for anybody (though, miraculously, The Northman is just a little less bleak than Hamlet in the end).
There are twists and turns along the way, and plenty that make this a far different offering than Shakespeare’s most famous play. For one thing, Hamlet is typically set some hundreds of years later, doesn’t involve brutal raids on Rus villages, has no chanting berserker warriors in wolf pelts and none of its characters ever set foot on Iceland, let alone raid ancient tombs to find magical swords.
There are also no acts in Hamlet titled The Night Blade Feeds. Again, I won’t spoil what that means, but you can use your imagination.
Alongside the mesmerizing cinematography, the sound design in The Northman will leave you dizzy. Beating drums, berserkers roaring, the howling of wolves, the deep guttural thrum of chanting voices and the clank of steel. Sometimes it’s hard to make out what characters are saying, the music and whispers and chanting can become so hectic and oppressive.
At times, The Northman let’s you outside into a wide green field or beneath a starry sky. More often, the camera brings us in close, into dark smoky halls and chambers, into tight corners and dark caverns. The effect is claustrophobic. Swirling voices in your ears, smoke in your eyes and lungs, fire and shadow. Blood and steel.
There isn’t a ton of dialogue. The plot is straightforward save for one rather upsetting twist. We never dig too deep into any of these characters, and by the end we’re still not sure who we should have been rooting for, if only because very few of these people are particularly likeable. Still, we get a sword fight in a volcano—does it really matter who wins in the end?
For the most part, the casting was terrific. Alexander Skarsgård plays the titular Northman, Amleth—our Hamlet—and he absolutely kills in the roll. Skarsgård has always struck me as a guy who seems genuinely nice and pleasant in real life, but he takes on the role of vengeful barbarian with a dark passion (and a frighteningly ripped physique for such a lean 6’4” giant). Anya Taylor-Joy plays the Slavic witch, Olga of the Birch Forest, and is as good as ever. Willem Dafoe plays Heimir the Fool—half jester, half mad prophet. Dafoe is apparently having the time of his life, landing every interesting role he can get his paws on.
Then there’s Icelandic pop-star Björk who plays a mystical Seeress in her first movie role in nearly two decades. You almost don’t recognize her in the wild attire they put her in. Claes Bang as Amleth’s uncle, Fjölnir The Brotherless, was excellent, stealing the show in every scene he was in.
My biggest concerns going into the film were two much more established movie stars who simply felt out of place in my mind and in the film’s trailer. Ethan Hawke plays Amleth’s father, King Aurvandil War-Raven and Nicole Kidman plays Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún. My fears were both well-founded and not.
Hawke really fell into the role to the point that I’d go entire scenes forgetting it was him almost altogether (at times he looked more like Josh Brolin to me, weirdly). I’m used to Hawke playing characters who generally look and sound like Hawke, but here he was a gruff, bearded, hulking Viking king and it worked shockingly well.
Kidman is another story. I’m not sure what it is about her that’s rubbed me wrong for so long. I have genuinely enjoyed her in past films like Far and Away and Moulin Rouge but lately she just falls flat. Maybe it’s the fact that she looks and acts so much like Nicole Kidman here, but with a fake Norse accent. To me, her casting was immersion-breaking. I would have preferred someone less famous, perhaps, or who could disappear into the role in ways Kidman simply can’t.
Don’t get me wrong—she did surprise me in the end, and I think she did a good job overall. But to me it still felt like this dark Norse saga was occasionally knocked off-kilter by her casting. Every time I saw her I would think “Nicole Kidman” rather than “Amleth’s mother the queen.” Sometimes films like this ought to leave the A-list talent out so that audiences can better immerse themselves in the story. Surely there are plenty of Scandinavian actors who could have better fit some of these roles?
That complaint aside, I enjoyed almost every minute of The Northman. It’s a slow burn at times, but I never felt bored. This is one to see on the big screen. Indeed, I wish our local theater had it on the big Cine1 screen with Dolby Atmos sound, but that was occupied by The Bad Guys, which is what you should probably take your kids to instead of this if you don’t want to traumatize them and annoy other moviegoers.
Moral of the film: If you’re going to kill the father, you better kill the son.
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