The Northman Review: The Definitive Viking Movie

Alexander Skarsgård shows us the beast within in Robert Eggers’ sprawling Viking epic, The Northman.

Alexander Skarsgard and Taylor-Joy in The Northman Review
Photo: Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features

Three features in, it’s beginning to look as if the much thrown around and overused term, “visionary,” can be applied with a great deal of justification to writer-director Robert Eggers. His new film The Northman follows in the footsteps of his two previous efforts, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), both of which created wholly immersive, fully detailed portraits of life in specific historical settings while exploring the thin line between the natural and the supernatural.

The Northman takes much the same direction, only in the most epic scale that Eggers has worked with yet. Set in 10th-century Scandinavia and Iceland, the film is truly breathtaking in its scope, its detail, and, again, its completely immersive quality. You don’t doubt for a second that you are anywhere but the time and place in which the film is set. And like its predecessors, The Northman also suggests that any barrier between the real world and the realms beyond was much more porous back then.

The film opens in the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey where King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns from a campaign of conquest to his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his 10-year-old son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Aurvandill decides it’s time for Amleth to begin his preparations to eventually inherit the throne, subjecting him to a psychedelic initiation ritual designed to bring out his inner “wolf.” But no sooner is the ritual complete than Amleth sees his father murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also seizes Gudrún and calls for the death of Amleth.

The boy flees by sea in a small boat, vowing to enact his revenge on Fjölnir and rescue his mother. When we meet him again roughly 20 years later (and now played by Alexander Skarsgård), he is a near-bestial member of a Viking berserker party raiding and pillaging Slavic towns in eastern Europe. After being reminded in a vision by a seeress (Bjork) of his promise, Amleth discovers that his uncle now presides over a large farm in Iceland. Amleth infiltrates a group of captured slaves being sent to Fjölnir’s land, where with the help of an alluring, enigmatic Slavic slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), he carefully maps out his vengeance.

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Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón, The Northman has been described as a “timeless” tale, which in fact it is. Its roots go back to ancient Icelandic sagas and Viking legends, which in turn have found themselves integrated into stories like Beowulf and Hamlet, and right down to modern variations such as The Lion King.

But it’s also a timeworn tale, and perhaps the biggest weakness in Eggers’ otherwise remarkably fleshed out, often gripping film is that the narrative is an overly familiar one, right down to an ostensibly surprising late reveal. In that sense, because the path for all the characters is so set in archetypal stone, it’s difficult to invest in anyone’s fate when we’ve seen the outcome play out in many earlier iterations of this classic revenge scenario. Whereas The Witch and The Lighthouse offered unexpected takes on the supernatural stories they were telling, The Northman rarely deviates from its pre-ordained path.

It’s difficult to fully relate to Amleth as well, although there’s no question that Skarsgård gives his all to the role. But Amleth as portrayed here is practically a human monster, hulking, massive, and full of a simmering rage that can explode at any moment into shocking violence. Skarsgård’s sheer physicality in the role, along with his skills wielding various weapons, are quite impressive, even if his emotional center remains encased within.

We have no doubt that this was the life of a Norseman in the 10th century, but it makes his quiet moments with Taylor-Joy’s Olga all the more jarring (the latter brings her usual luminous presence to a role that is somewhat underwritten, but she still holds the screen whenever she’s on). Skarsgård is almost a cross in modern terms between Thor and the Hulk, and if nothing else, The Northman gives us a glimpse of what the actor might have looked like as the MCU’s God of Thunder had he beaten out Chris Hemsworth for the role.

While there’s an additional layer of complexity missing from Skarsgård’s performance, Kidman and Bang provide more nuanced takes on their characters. Bang in particular does some subtle, interesting work as Fjölnir, portraying him in the film’s second half as somewhat more sympathetic and introspective (insofar as a Viking slave owner and murderer of his brother can be seen that way) but still deeply haunted by the actions he’s taken in his life. Kidman is a cypher for a good deal of the running time, but eventually shows the fortitude and self-possession probably necessary for a woman to carve any life out for herself in this era.

While the story’s inevitability makes the film feel long as it inches towards its conclusion, one is still never bored thanks to Eggers’ incredible mastery of atmosphere, tone, and imagery. The windswept, desolate, eerily majestic landscapes of Iceland fill one’s eyes continuously while the stylized sequences of plunder, battle, and even gaming (with all three blending into each other in terms of their violent nature) are strikingly lit and choreographed.

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The scenes in which the grounded world crosses into the realm of the mystical and supernatural–often through visions, potion-induced hallucinations, or outright manifestations–are also powerfully conceived and executed, with psychedelia, primeval magic, and natural beauty combined for an often awe-inspiring tableaux that channels both Norse mythology and something more nameless and ancient.

Also awe-inspiring is the film’s violence and gore. Be warned, The Northman goes as hard as an R-rated movie can go, with beheadings, disembowelments, stabbings, beatings, torture, rape, immolation, and the sacrificial killing of animals a constant throughout the film. But even then, Eggers stages much of it in painterly fashion, including a battle royale set in a flaming landscape that captures both the raw power of nature and the barbaric fury of the men fighting in its lap.

Eggers told Den of Geek magazine, “The intention is for this to be the Viking movie,” and in many ways he’s done that. The Northman is one hell of a lot of Viking movie, and there’s no question that Eggers, Skarsgård, Kidman, Sjón, Taylor-Joy, and the rest of the cast and crew leave it all out there on the bloody, muddy field. But in sticking to a tried-and-true narrative, the director does a slight injustice to all the other riveting elements of his most ambitious and, yes, visionary production yet.

The Northman opens in theaters on April 22.


3.5 out of 5