The Northman: A film that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten

Director Robert Eggers has created an original near masterpiece of this genre

What should make a film a success with the mainstream audience? Explicated violence and sexual content? Nonstop action? Corny dad jokes and bad CGI fights?  

There are many elements that reach a wide audience, but few do so as effectively than Robert Eggers’s 2022 historical adventure Viking epic, The Northman.

In recent years, Robert Eggers has established himself as one of the brightest and most talented young filmmakers. Eggers has transported critics and audience members into worlds filled with bleakness, surrealism, carnal imagery, visceral acts, and barbarity. Whether it’s the draining, tiresome “The Witch” or the claustrophobic fever dream known as “The Lighthouse,” Eggers never fails to leave his mark in the mind of all that view his films.

When Eggers announced that his next film was going to be a Viking adventure revenge epic, his fans were ecstatic. They were thrilled to see the ensemble that Eggers created. Familiar faces were returning, such as Willem Dafoe and Anya Taylor-Joy. There were also a host of other famous actors, as well as newcomers: Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, and Bjork. The trailer of The Northman even played before The Batman when it was in theaters. With a budget of 90 million dollars, admirers of Eggers were excited to see his potential rise into the public mainstream.

The Northman came out on April 22, 2022. A time when a big studio movie was just out the month before (The Batman), and with many moviegoers anticipating Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness the month of The Northman’s release date, the Viking epic got lost in the shuffle. 

All of the advisements for this film build it up as another typical masculine, violent historical period drama along the lines of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator. It was also linked to the box office bomb of Ridley Scott’s, “The Last Duel.” With the public growing tired of this sub-genre, fans of Eggers were worried about The Northman’s box office outcome and feared that Eggers would make a generic revenge flick. Little did everyone know that The Northman touches on an old Scandinavian poem by Saxo Grammaticus, the same poem that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

The story of The Northman follows Prince Amleth. A young boy witnesses his father’s death at the hands of his Uncle Fjolnir. The young Amleth must hide from Fjolnir, who also wants him dead. Amleth hides away for years as a Berserker until he receives a prophecy from a Seeress in a Slavic village that Amleth and his fellow Berserkers just raided. The following day, Amleth overhears a fellow Berserker say that the imprisoned villagers are being sent to Fjolnir (who has since lost his stolen kingdom and is now living as a farmer in Iceland). Amleth takes this opportunity by the throat, disguises himself as a slave, and sails off with the others to Fjolnir’s farm with the mindset of avenging his father, saving his mother, and killing Fjolnir. There, Amleth creates ties with a fellow slave Olga, who has witch-like powers. Together they work as a team to make Fjolnir’s life a living hell.

That plot alone is just epic, but even though it is action and drama-packed, there’s still more to this film on a spiritual and artistic level.

The aesthetic and atmosphere that Eggers and his crew create for this film are just transportive. While watching the movie, it transports one back to 10th-century Scandvillia. A viewer can feel the weight of this unforgiving climate that these characters are living. While watching the raiding scene, one can feel the mud, dirt, and blood crawling into their fingernails.

Not to mention the beautiful and fantastical score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.

Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is truly breathtaking. The scenery of this film can either make one crawl back into their seat with the true visceral and raw nature of this world or mesmerize them with the beautiful long green landscapes of Iceland. They actually built real Viking boats for this film, showing the pure dedication that Eggers has to make this world as historically accurate as possible. Even the jewelry is Viking-era accurate.

This film also has a once-in-a-decade ensemble. Everyone in this film truly gives it their all, and it shows. The cast in this picture truly knows their character’s role in the movie. Everyone connects, and that cooperation makes the ensemble one of the best in quite some time.

Alexander Skarsgard is the star of the show. Viewers are with Amleth from the moment the film begins until it ends. Amleth would have just been a brooding, badass, monster-like, overly masculine warrior hero with anyone else in this role. Still, Skarsgard brings a trauma-like innocence to Amleth that feels unexpected from this type of character. At certain points in the film, it appears that Amleth wants to give up. Still, he has a promise and destiny to fulfill, and Skarsgard communicates this through presence, movement, poetic dialogue, or natural rage.

Claes Bang as Uncle Fjolnir may be the greatest antagonist of the year. He can elicit a hateful reaction from the audience, but can also receive the audience’s adoration from the careful attention he receives throughout the film.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga establishes herself again in this film as one of the industry’s most talented, young actors. The character of Olga could have just been a typical one-noted sidekick/love interest. Yet, Olga is integral to Amleth’s development as a character. Olga brings Amleth back to earth from all his pent-up aggression and shows how he can defeat his odds. 

There are many other great performances.  Nicole Kidman commands the room through a simple cold glare or for her to scold others terrifyingly poetically. Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Bjork give it their all with their little screen time. They are all believable. Hawke is loving — yet he is a coarse and fearless father/king. Willem Dafoe is an eccentric but wise Sharma/court jester, and Bjork’s brief appearance as the Slavic Seeress is both surreal but feels natural due to the world that centers around this film.

The film begins as one expects: the king arrives in his kingdom to be welcomed by his queen and his son, and his son witnesses the betrayal by the envious brother. Then the son makes an oath to avenge his father — fast forward to him as a brooding rage-filled, vengeful vessel of mayhem. But once Amleth enters the farm of Fjolnir, the film decides to be patient with the rageful vengeful aspect of the film. Amleth doesn’t enter guns blazing; no, Amleth decides to slowly mutilate Fjolnir’s reality with the help of his fellow slave Olga. 

Amleth deals with the question of whether to achieve his revenge fantasy and fulfill his father’s wish or live a life of peace and love. Something that most revenge flicks don’t discuss. The weight of revenge rage can be huge on someone’s shoulders.

The other thing this film has done that other historical epics haven’t is to bring these people’s spiritual and religious beliefs into the film. To these Pagan Vikings, their faith and reality are one. Amleth relies a lot on his Pagan faith. We get this gritty and fleshly imagery, and then we get this otherworldy and religious imagery, combining reality and spiritual beliefs. Examples are the message he receives from the Seeress, a valkyrie soaring to Valhalla, and many more.

The Northman is its own hybrid of a film. It is a Viking revenge adventure, a historical epic, and a Robert Eggers film. To the casual audience member just suspecting raiding of villages, sword-filled battles, consistent amounts of bloodshed, or virile characters, those elements do exist. But Eggers decides to condense those acts and thoughtfully comment on them, focusing more on the characters and atmosphere.

The Northman is unlike any film that has come before. Robert Eggers has crafted a near masterpiece and masterclass of world-building, acting, and story-driven spectacle. This film does not deserve to fade into obscurity.