“I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
Repeated numerous times throughout the runtime, this line by Amleth (portrayed by the always fearless Alexander Skarsgård) manages to simplify the film’s plot in an easy and concise way. Featured in nearly every trailer and TV spot for the film, the line showcases exactly what to expect with “The Northman:” A revenge story.
At a young age, Amleth escapes his savage uncle Fjölnir, Danish film star Claes Bang, who is overthrowing the throne from his father, King Aurvandill, the impeccable Ethan Hawke.
Separated from his mother, Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman, who was taken by Fjölnir’s men and the kingdom he was destined to rule one day, Amleth joins a band of Vikings who raise him to be a barbaric killer. Even as the years pass by, he waits for the perfect opportunity to seek his vengeance, rescue his mother, and claim his worthy title of king.
While the entire cast shines, the most unsurprising notion is how magnificent Nicole Kidman is as Queen Gudrún. Her presence is subtle yet commanding exactly when it needs to be. In one of the film’s most pivotal (and best) scenes, Kidman towers over Skarsgård’s Amleth as her character’s true intentions are slowly and meticulously peeled away like the layers of an onion. Kidman keeps everything close to the chest and perfectly nails every razor-sharp line of dialogue, especially in an awe-inspiring dialogue that may be one of the best of her career.
Director Robert Eggers personal touch can be seen in nearly every frame and line of dialogue. His quirky style of horror and fantasy is displayed perfectly in Björk’s prophet-like character, who foresees the entire film’s plot in the first thirty or so minutes, and during the family tree sequences that quite literally dives deep into the souls of the characters to unravel.
While Eggers and Sjón’s script is based on a Scandinavian legend that served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s timeless classic “Hamlet,” it manages to cast a unique spell on the viewer. It feels modern yet ancient at the same time with multiple uses of Eggers trademark long takes mixed with old English. Eggers, known for his smaller indie horror films like “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” manages to bring his particular vision to the mythos of Viking lore. Even with a budget of $90 million, Eggers’ film still feels like one of his earlier outings, which were collectively made for one-sixth of the price.
Even with such brutal, gory and repulsive sequences, it’s hard to take your eyes off the immersive world and vision presented in “The Northman.” Eggers has created a film that provides some of the most intense action scenes on the silver screen in a long time, but that’s about it. The film’s themes—revenge, sacrifice and loyalty, among others—are obvious early on but they are surface level. It feels like there was extra content left on the editing floor that the studio told Eggers not to cut for the film to have a broader appeal amongst the general audience.
Fans of Eggers’ filmography know that his films often go far beyond what is shown on the screen. Often these films stick with you for days after the initial viewing because they offer so many contemplating thoughts and questions. “The Northman,” while easy to rewatch for the action sequences alone, is rather simple and easy to digest for everyone.
While this may be a good thing for its legacy as a film that will most likely be constantly shown on cable TV—one which you can turn on and get immersed into at any time—it doesn’t help the film having a legacy that will be studied by film scholars like Eggers past efforts.
All in all, it’s bold for a studio like Focus Features to distribute a film like “The Northman” to over 3,200 theaters across the country for its opening weekend. When it seems like sequels, remakes and superhero blockbusters are released on a weekly basis, taking these sorts of risks on what could be deemed as typical indie fanfare is exciting and gives the box office a much-needed refresher.