From visionary director Robert Eggers comes The Northman, an action-filled epic that follows a young Viking prince on his quest to avenge his father’s murder.
While the subject matter veers away from the horrific elements that have been front and center in his first two features, there’s no question that “The Northman” is a Robert Eggers’ movie. Dark in tone and look, this re-do of “Hamlet” through the prism of Norse mythology is a technically adept, well-acted film that comes off as an art house version of “Conan the Barbarian.” This is good, as far as it goes, which is enough to get us through the 135-minute running time. However, it’s a cold exercise, lacking the sort of emotional engagement necessary to move us, as Eggers opts for a more visceral approach instead.
Set in the late 9th century, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) has returned home from a long campaign and is warmly greeted by his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and son, Amleth (Oscar Novak). It is a seemingly joyous occasion, the highlight being a rite of passage for the boy facilitated by Heimir the Fool (Willem Defoe) and some powerful hallucinogens. During this, Amleth is shown his future, one he fails to fully comprehend but fate takes a hand when he later witnesses his uncle Fjolinir (Claes Bang), who eschews the poison-in-the-ear approach, brutally kill Aurvandil.
Fleeing in terror, Amleth sets out on a stormy sea until he comes to the Land of the Rus where he grows strong and falls in with a group of pillagers who murder and rape the citizens of any village they find. After one such attack, he encounters a witch (Bjork) who reminds him of the prophecy he was once told, it suddenly becoming clear that he needs to return to the kingdom of his birth to avenge his father’s death. Pretending to be a slave, he returns and is promptly sold to his uncle, along with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who has her own agenda.
The film is a visual knockout, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke capturing varying gradations of gray to create a perpetually overcast world, one barely keeping complete darkness at bay. Only a very few scenes contain a suggestion of sunlight – muted at that – as little hope is present in this violent, primitive place.
This is a violent world, one in which Darwinism rules, the strong and ruthless rising to the top, giving no quarter to the weak or stupid. To be sure, the film earns its R rating, the action scenes brilliantly staged and captured – Eggers pulls off an unbroken tracking shot during an attack that’s a thing of beauty – blood and guts spilled freely and often. Still, it never feels gratuitous, every death contributing to the nihilistic mood, underscoring the danger Amleth must contend with while on his unshakeable path.
Still and all, there’s something missing here. While we may understand everyone’s intention, there’s no emotional connection with any of them. Something of a romance develops between Amleth and Olga, yet it comes off as something Eggers felt obliged, rather than compelled, to include. The movie threatens to suck us in emotionally when Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, as the adult Amleth, confront one another, the tone of the film shifting noticeably as these two screen veterans reveal what’s in their characters’ hearts. Unfortunately, it’s a fleeting moment.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Northman” is a well-made adventure that’s well-acted, artfully rendered and never less than interesting. And while its oft-covered theme that vengeance leads to the destruction of those who pursue it is driven home with uncommon force, the narrative comes off much as its hero destiny – a lockstep formula that cannot be altered or bothered to move its audience.