The Northman review – a true masterpiece, original and haunting

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke. Directed by Robert Eggers.

Robert Eggers is not your usual director, and his style is undeniable. His debut, New England folk tale The VVitch brought the world the terror of a screaming Ralph Ineson and catapulted Anya Taylor-Joy into the world, and his follow-up was the critically acclaimed claustrophobic thriller The Lighthouse. Now, he’s back with a big studio behind him for the fantasy epic The Northman, starring Alexander Skarsgård.

The Northman has a deceptively simple plot. Warrior Prince Amleth witnesses his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He swears revenge, and years later, now an adult Viking brick shithouse (Alexander Skarsgård) he and a sorceress slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) infiltrate his home to rescue Amleth’s mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).

Eggers has a stacked cast for his blood-soaked fantasy. At the centre of the story is Skarsgård, more beast than man. Grunting, howling and roaring throughout the film, he’s less stoic and noble than Maximus in Gladiator, but less at the mercy of others than Hugh Glass in The Revenant. He’s an animal in human skin, with barely repressed anger threatening to come forth at any moment.

Eggers lingers on Skarsgård’s body, ripped to shreds and at times completely nude. It’s a film that presents the human body in all its forms with a sense of pride. Despite the harsh elements, the human body can be more than at the mercy of nature. Around his lead is a feast of supporting actors. Claes Bang as the villainous Fjölnir opts away from playing him as a simple villain, sliding past Scar or Claudius territory, instead opting for something approaching a man trying to survive in a world where the gods can turn at any point.

Kidman and Taylor-Joy give arguably the most engaging performances. Kidman’s eyes are so stern and cold that at times you’d think she could freeze you with one gaze, while Taylor-Joy’s wide-eyed innocence is put to good use as a slave looking for an out and a desire to be more than just the weapon or toy of people.

The film is gorgeous to look at, the landscapes each cut up into chapters that tell you where we are in the story, each with their own personality. The snow-swept prologue gives way to mud-covered battles, grass-strewn farmland, and finally a volcanic climax. Eggers is clearly in love with the landscapes just as much as cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. It’s easily the most gorgeous-looking film in some time.

Claes Bang in The Northman.

The score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is sensational, mixing music with chanting to give the feeling we are watching a campfire story told to us through the ages. It’s at times so beautifully done that you could opt for a version that is devoid of dialogue, and just has the music. 

Eggers keeps his usual blackly comic edge; there’s burping, farting, homoeroticism, and a joke about period blood but with very little embarrassment about it. It’s part of being human, and Eggers loves it as much as he does the sight of men dancing nude.

Both he and co-writer Sjón opt for a story that is light on grand speeches, there are no declarations of vengeance, but the dialogue is used to show who the characters are in public and who they are in private. The film’s mix of surrealism and down-in-the-earth grit works better than one might expect, offering people who enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games a film version of their latest edition Valhalla. 

The film is long, but it never feels like it’s dragging its heels. It’s a film that moves at a pace and offers the viewer the chance to be enveloped in a world of both fantasy – fighting corpses, magic, very helpful ravens – and the realism of the time. If it proves a little too tough for some viewers — and the violence is unrelenting — it’ll reward those who go along with it.

It’s a film of great beauty in savagery, and proves that Eggers is a director of his own standing. Easily the first true masterpiece of the year, original and haunting, it’ll be a tough act for any action film to top this one. Now let’s all strip and fight.

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