If there’s one thing that writer/director Robert Eggers is known for, it’s his ability to tell an incredibly disturbing story with an amazing attention to detail for historical accuracy and realism. The Witch and The Lighthouse were both hailed by critics as “elevated horror”, but that term does them a disservice as they’re both so much more than that.
Following the success of both of those films, Eggers set out to not only make a great Viking movie, but to make the great Viking movie. And in that mammoth task, he very much succeeded. Between an ensemble of great performances, amazing production design, and enough bloody violence to make you downright uncomfortable, The Northman is a truly impressive feat.
The Lion King Meets Gladiator
Opening in 10th century Scandinavia, we meet a young prince named Amleth and his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth is quite excited for the return of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) from battle.
Right from the beginning, the film is infused with Eggars’ usual attention to historical detail, and just a myriad of different references and visual representations of Nordic customs and rituals. He always does a dissertation’s worth of research prior to making a film, and it’s very much on display here.
Jealous of his brother’s kingdom (and wife) Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills King Aurvandill and usurps his throne. While he does order the death of young Amleth as well, the boy escapes by boat and winds up being raised by Vikings as a berserker. Years later (and now played by a very jacked Alexander Skarsgård), we see him raid a village, after which he has a vision reminding him of the vengeance he once swore.
Among the villagers, who are now being sold as slaves, a batch of them is going to his uncle’s current kingdom in Iceland, and Amleth stows away on their ship, disguised as a slave. He partners with another slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and winds up on his uncle’s property, ready to exact the revenge he swore as a child.
In a lot of ways, it almost feels like “The Count of Monte Cristo” as no one recognizes Amleth, including his own mother, and he plays the part of the quiet and loyal slave as he slowly takes away everything that his uncle Fjölnir cares about.
Skarsgård is such a physical presence in the movie, but honestly the real standout (as far as performances go) is Anya Taylor-Joy. We see her going from resenting Amleth for attacking her village to falling in love with him in a way that doesn’t feel “Hollywood contrived” so to speak.
There’s not a single weak link in any of the acting performances, but special recognition needs to go to Nicole Kidman. We can’t get too much into it without spoilers, but her character has a few very unexpected twists and turns, and Kidman gives it her all, and demonstrates an incredible range that she really doesn’t get to do anymore in most movies.
If studying history doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong. Ever since the dawn of humans, we humans have done absolutely atrocious things to each other. The Northman doesn’t shy away from showing its audience the grisly details of what happens to a village that’s raided by Vikings.
Amleth is our “hero” but we watch him slaughter people who have done absolutely nothing to him, and we watch his compatriots burning children alive and capturing innocent villagers to be sold into slavery. Even once he goes on his revenge mission, it’s a messy process that involves him killing innocent people who themselves would have a great case for revenge against him.
There’s a great line by Fjölnir in which he explains to his son the importance of them doing physical work from time to time. He explains that in addition to demonstrating to slaves that the master isn’t weak, it also serves a reminder that they themselves could be slaves if they were ever raided and defeated. It touches as the unstable mobility of that society where even the royal and well off are only one lost war away from being slaves.
Much like HBO’s Rome, The Northman never tries to give its 10th century characters modern day values. But at the same time, it never tries to “sanitize” the history excluding the atrocities that were so common back then. It merely presents medieval society as it was, horrors and all. Between that and the movie’s excessive violence and gore, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart!
Ultimately, what makes this movie fascinating is that it’s not really meant for a modern audience. It’s a mythological epic that would be the same kind of story parents would tell their children in medieval Scandinavia. Many of the characters are directly pulled from Norse mythology. Amleth himself is the original inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. So in a weird way, The Northman is an adaptation of “Hamlet” but it actually predates it.
And aside from a few dreamlike sequences, the movie feels very grounded and realistic. The more supernatural, mythical aspects are kept on the fringe. Amleth has visions, he sees himself being carried by a Valkyrie, he speaks to Willem Dafoe’s severed head (as you do), but you could also chalk these all up to dream sequences, or they might be really happening and this has all been fantasy. That’s the very nature of myths, and it’s what Robert Eggers meant when he said he wanted to make the Viking movie.
Modern audiences can look at Amleth and criticize his revenge plan and how many other people die as a result, but the story isn’t being told for modern day values, it’s being told with the same values that 10th century Nordic people would have had. It’s by no means a morality tale, rather it speaks to what was important to them at that time.
The Northman is every bit as brutal, violent, and intense as you’d expect a historically accurate Viking story to be. It challenges its audience, presents a fascinating story, and toes the line perfectly between historical realism and myth/fantasy. It’s truly a movie worthy of Valhalla!
What did you think of The Northman? How did you like it compared to The Witch and The Lighthouse? Let us know in the comments!