The opening chapter of The Northman is amazing. It is bold, audacious and weird, the kind of filmmaking that makes you giggle with glee at how a studio clearly gave so much money to art-house eccentricity. We are thrown into a heightened but meticulously detailed world; after all, Robert Eggers (director and co-writer) and his frequent collaborators (this being his third feature and his third period feature) are famous for exhaustive research and for realising the specific period details on screen that others simply do not. It is a wonderful mix of immersive verisimilitude and utter madness, as the overblown King (Ethan Hawke) celebrates a triumphant return, complete with a crude jester (Willem Dafoe). This whole sequence is steeped in ritual, mysticism and the unknown. It feels genuinely strange and the expressionistic flair of Eggers’ previous film, The Lighthouse (2019) (Twin Geeks’ 2019 Film of the Year), feels continued but blown up onto a much larger canvas (this is, after all, a studio film; a blockbuster, by definition). Themes percolate well in this section: a portrayal of performative masculinity as an atavistic endeavour, presented in a way that reveals the theatrics but also makes the viewer deeply uneasy. It’s excellent stuff. The rest of the film is not.
Disappointingly, this initial mode is one that the film rarely revisits, and when it does, does so with diminishing returns. In this sequence, The Northman feels like something bold and new, a work using a relatively large budget to forge a new kind of blockbuster. In the end, though its sheer craft sets it apart, the wider film feels very expected and deeply unremarkable. There is a mastery of specificity, a perfection that resides in the corners of the film, but the foreground is repetitive, poorly paced and traditional to a fault. This final critique seems initially unfair, as this film is an adaptation of a classic tale, the Medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the source for Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and by extension material as diverse as Disney’s The Lion King (1994) and Akira Kurosawa’s criminally underseen The Bad Sleep Well (1960)). Basically, though you may not be familiar with the exact source, the story has been adapted so frequently that you’ll know the broad strokes. This actually makes the opening chapter (the film is split into discrete sections) more disappointing, as soon as Ethan Hawke (who brings so much to the screen) is revealed to be the father of Prince Amleth (and that his brother is visiting).
This being a familiar story does ultimately work against the movie. The source is adapted by Icelandic novelist (and multi-hyphenate) Sjón as well as Eggers. Sjón, a frequent collaborator with Björk (who, crushingly briefly, lights up the screen in this film) also co-wrote 2021’s Lamb. Make of that what you will (for me, there’s a pattern here (in terms of film co-writing) and it’s not a positive one). There is a degree of dramatic irony to the overall work, but one that isn’t effectively used. The sense of the audience knowing how things are going to go (this is the source of a Shakespearean tragedy, those are the ones that don’t end with everybody getting married…) is used to create an all encompassing fatalism rather than anything more intelligent. It doesn’t feel like a self-aware work, or a particularly interesting one. Nothing new is spun out of the story, it instead becomes overwhelmed by its commitment to the tale in this original form; the result is something numbingly linear. There’s just a lot of plot, which seems rather throwaway considering the genre we are in. Time is not spent building character or theme, atmosphere is built passively but the atmosphere becomes very monotonous. The result is, to be frank, just a lot. The middle portion, between the important sequence that sets up the want for the revenge and the finale sequences where that revenge is actively sought, is a trudge. It is incident for the sake of incident and numbs the viewer. Each extended sequence of bloodlust, cruelty or masculine excess is independently impressive. But, there are just a lot of them.
A relatively early scene is utterly spellbinding: a stunning one take raid that focuses on the grown up Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he brutalises his way through an encampment. It is technically astonishing but in a way that doesn’t feel affected or distracting. The single-minded wrath is translated perfectly onto screen and the depressing calm after this relentless outburst of violence ties off the scene well. However, this is one of many extended action sequences. It doesn’t take long for the whole revenge thing to become tiresome, and for the events to feel like barriers before an inevitable conclusion. There is no wider interest, no fresh commentary, it is just a very linear revenge tale with the obvious message that violence begets violence and maybe all consuming revenge is all consuming. It is accurate, but it is indulgent and clichéd. Yes, this an adaptation of a source from before when this had become cliché, but we can’t not live in the present and with our wider knowledge of the genre.
The conclusion of this is that The Northman is remarkable yet unremarkable, in this rather unique way. As a piece of filmmaking, it is often stunning. Though, if you were one of the people, like myself, who thought The Lighthouse was a touch too affected, you will find the same to be true here. The virtuosic flourishes are very foregrounded and the energetic camera, that feels like it can swoop anywhere, certainly does pull the viewer’s attention to its own existence. It’s impressive though. The sound design is just amazing (the best part of the film). It exists in that assaulting, uncanny space that the film’s opening does, and that the rest of the film doesn’t quite. Because, in spite of all that is so easy to praise about The Northman, the film doesn’t really work. We have this painfully traditional narrative, complete with a terribly motivated and executed romantic arc (which is a waste of Anya Taylor-Joy’s talents). Here, an interesting character is diluted into a plot device that exists to motivate our man, and that loses her distinct humanity in order to follow a rote narrative arc.
Everything in The Northman feels impressively precise (especially the specific details), but there’s just too much of it, and the target of this precision is ultimately uninteresting. I found myself dulled by it all, desensitised by the outlandish violence to the point that I couldn’t wait for them all to just shuffle off of their mortal coils. There’s a bolder, more interesting and just straight up weirder film in here; alas, what we have instead boils down to a technically proficient slog.