The Northman Is a Visceral and Powerful Historical Thriller

The Northman Is a Visceral and Powerful Historical Thriller
Alexander Skarsgard is fierce in the beautiful The Northman. (Image: Focus Features)

A young prince watches in terror as his father, the king, is murdered. The killer turns on the prince, but he escapes, survives, and years later, reappears to reclaim the throne and get his revenge. That’s the very basic setup for The Northman, the powerful and moving new film by co-writer and director Robert Eggers. And while it’s a story you’ve seen before, you’ve never seen it like this.

In his first two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers exploded onto the scene with a very distinct, unique filmmaking style. Each was a period film with a genre spin, visualized with lush, muted colours, filled with elevated language and dense mythology that made them seem less like fiction and more like historical documents. Critics adored the films but one could argue they were a bit too abstract and weird for general audiences. Well, The Northman is the next evolution of that. It’s a film that looks, sounds, and feels like the previous two, but with a more familiar, commercial story. It’s not Eggers’ best film (We’d give that to The Witch), but it’s his most accessible, and certainly the most exciting.

After a dark, trippy prologue in which King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home from war only to be killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), The Northman picks up a few decades later. The king’s son Amleth, now played by Alexander Skarsgård, was forced to abandon his royal life in order to survive and now lives and works with a group of savage warriors. One day, he hears a rumour about what happened to his traitorous uncle and mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), Amleth instantly throws away everything and goes off to do the three things he’s been vowing to do since he was a child: “I will avenge you father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you Fjölnir.”

Amleth and Olga in The Northman (Image: Focus Features)Amleth and Olga in The Northman (Image: Focus Features)

In the first half-hour or so, as all of the above is being set up, The Northman is electric. Eggers moves his camera through massive practical sets filled with mud, giving the story a gritty grounded reality. Action scenes in these settings are brutal and beautifully choreographed, with a minimal amount of edits, making the fights visceral and powerful. That changes, though, once Amleth goes off to find his uncle. The Northman goes from a more traditional historical epic with tons of men running around with swords shirtless, to a much smaller, almost psychological thriller. Amleth embeds himself with his uncle’s people and, with the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who he met and began to fall for on the way there, the two wreak havoc on Amleth’s enemies.

None of this is boring, but there are a few bumps in the road. First of all, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief that must happen in order to buy into Amleth ending up at Fjölnir’s doorstep so quickly. The narrative explains it, but it still feels a little too easy and coincidental. Plus, this latter half of the movie works more like a sequel than a cohesive continuation. That’s in part due to the later scenes mostly taking place in the lush hills of Iceland, but also that the action-packed opening act takes a back seat for anticipation and suspense. Amleth must be careful with his true identity so he and Olga can quietly build up their plan. As a result, the change in setting and pacing takes some getting used to. Once all that’s settled though, which happens fairly quickly, Eggers slowly starts to push down on the gas pedal. Scene after scene revels in the satisfying slow burn of Amleth dolling out violent, cathartic revenge, piece by piece.

Then things really get cooking. As The Northman finally starts to see the finish line, Eggers’ script (which he co-wrote with Icelandic author Sjón) takes some daring twists and turns leading up to the inevitable final showdown which is simply put, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on film. It’s as if George Lucas filmed the finale of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith for real. Real swords, real lava, real stakes. It’s a remarkable finale with stunning cinematography from Jarin Blaschke.

Nicole Kidman brings her A-game in The Northman. (Image: Focus Features)Nicole Kidman brings her A-game in The Northman. (Image: Focus Features)

As beautiful as that scene and, frankly, the rest of the movie is, it wouldn’t work if we didn’t believe the characters, and the cast has some real standouts. As the leads, Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy pull off a beautiful ying-yang set of performances. Skarsgård is deadly serious at the start but as the film moves on, becomes increasingly vulnerable. Conversely, Taylor- Joy begins as a defeated slave and slowly grows into a cunning, formidable, force of nature. The two work well together, though their love story never hits as hard as it’s meant to. Supporting performances by Hawke, Bang, and Willem Dafoe all add gravitas to the story, but it’s Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún who really steals the show. She has some incredibly intense, emotionally complex moments, and you believe every second.

The Northman isn’t a movie for everybody, but it’s the Robert Eggers movie that’s probably for the widest audience. It probably also has the most bodies. He doesn’t shy away from the R-rated violence, which is particularly gut-wrenching in this film, nor does he give up on using eloquent, lyrical language throughout and infusing the film with dense mythological narratives. If anything, that mythology can at times get in the way of the film’s momentum. One early scene in particular (featuring Björk as “The Slav Witch”) is so densely packed with crucial information that you better hope you don’t zone out for a second or you’ll be completely lost. But that’s Eggers. He doesn’t make movies for casual viewing. He makes films that demand you pay attention and with The Northman, we’ll continue to pay attention to this rising filmmaking star.

The Northman opens in theatres April 22.