The Northman film review

The Northman (2022)

⭐⭐⭐⭐½

(4½ stars out of 5)

The Northman (2022) Directed by Robert Eggers

Robert Eggers’ most ambitious film to date, but I’m not saying it’s the best in his slim oeuvre yet, nevertheless it manifests his visionary filmmaking ability, establishing himself as one of the great contemporary auteurs. Being in his filmography the most far-reaching, thematically dense and gigantic in literary roots, I decided to take a thorough time to familiarize myself with the literature of Icelandic artist and intellectual Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, who was the one who wrote the screenplay of this Nordic narrative together with Robert Eggers. Definitely a seductive and extremely compatible collaboration.

An extensive abstraction in symbolic gravitas can be found in Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson’s substantial oeuvre, which patently has had an epic impact on the thematic rigor of this film. Not only because of the fantastic surrealism evocatively pronounced in the mythological essence of the visuals, but also because of the structural complexity given to the narrative, thus generating an impulse in me to arduously delve into it, coming to the conclusion that in order to absorb its legendary passages by the Scandinavian ethos with more objective interpretation, I first had to deconstruct Robert Eggers’ purposes in conjunction with the vision of the poet Sjón. Sjón’s poems explore geography and sentiments enticingly well without obscuring language, without hermeticism, a kind of mystery opens up in time, winsome compositions that are short, but resonate in complex content.

The Northman follows a metric that carries the Viking spirit in its lyrics, or rather generalizing its aesthetics, it carries the zeitgeist of the sagas of the Icelanders, focusing on the important components of the expressions within Icelandic literature, especially in the significant focus on genealogy and social forms within that environment. This production utilizes something that throughout history has been formalized as a stereotype, and that is of the brutality and savage modus vivendi of the Vikings, details of which there is no native record that is historically accurate and objective to generally specify the customs; what I am trying to explain is that this is another epic vision of Scandinavian folklore through the Christian viewpoints, since all the historical writings that are known in Scandinavia date from the adoption of Christianity, and that is why the severe, violent and even insane portrait that is given is because the Christians wanted to portray them in this way.

In this bloodthirsty journey of revenge through the cold northern climes, director Robert Eggers concentrates tenaciously the most hyper-violent perspective of the epic ferocious times. Here he holds nothing back in terms of graphic violence and conspicuous sound design that turns the myths into an immersive nightmare where tragic conflicts are born. The dramatic destiny is somber and terrifying, despite using one of the most worn out elements in cinema such as the theme of revenge, here it seems to change absolutely everything, in The Northman there is no revenge per se, only fervently desired. However, this film does believe in the pessimism that surrounds the meaning of living only to satiate your vengeance, but the most unexpected and ingenious element of this narrative scheme, is that the merciless philosophy of this plot is that there are no winners, much less avengers, only a human decadence that always remains at the service of the powerful gods.

More than a film that develops a whole story that gravitates to revengeful acts and how the past haunts us, it is a film that delves into capturing mythological passages, formalities and ritualistic values. The narrative framework follows the patterns of a script that meticulously focuses on behaviors, and how those behaviors are the responses to their actions. The film gives you potent action with high doses of testosterone, multiple moments where cold-blooded mayhem thunderously vibrates the screen, and yet the minutes given to those sequences are microscopic; Robert Eggers has larger ambitions than making a Mel Gibson or Ridley Scott-style epic, his inclinations are more structuralist than narrative, preferring fury in contemplative verse that glorifies landscapes and the legendary rather than grand battles dependent on complex editing. The thematic thoroughness has a singular language represented not in the rhythmic entertainment of a story with situations that aggrandize romanticism, but in the rhapsodic camera movements and in the breathtakingly faultless geometry of the overall kinetics, giving an unforgettable visual storytelling that has majesty and enormity, with laconic yet precise details, analogous to the structures of Sjón’s poems.

Maybe the length can be heavy between the slow acts, maybe the epic minutes are not justified, nevertheless I don’t think that in less time it would have been possible to consolidate a formal design of this quality. The Northman is muscular, devastatingly riveting to watch, aggressive and effective, solid as the impeccable cast, and stentorian as Alexander Skarsgård’s blistering performance.

In 895 AD, King Aurvandill War-Raven returns to his kingdom on the island of Hrafnsey after his conquests abroad and is reunited with his wife, Queen Gudrún, and his son and heir, Prince Amleth. The two participate in a spiritual ceremony overseen by Aurvandill’s jester, Heimir. The next morning, masked warriors led by Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir, ambush and murder the king. After watching his uncle slaughter his people and take his screaming mother, Amleth flees in a boat vowing to avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. Two decades later, Amleth has become a berseker warrior or ulfhednar, dedicated to pillaging Slavic villages, but a seer reminds him of his promise: to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle. Amleth returns to Iceland on a slave ship and infiltrates his uncle’s farm with the help of Olga, a slave, to fulfill his promise.

After the resounding successes of such productions as The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) director Robert Eggers moves into very intrepid, profoundly risky and above all ambitious territory…epic cinema. Even if this film had been a flawed film in Eggers’ still short filmography, that wouldn’t stop us from still calling him a visionary contemporary artist, both in his short films and two features prior to this new film, he proved enough to justifiably establish him as a proficient and one-of-a-kind director. Fortunately, this new venture in his film career is not a disappointment, but rather an admirable piece of filmmaking that roars with an infectious and even dangerous verve.

Most likely, the debate will now gravitate around whether this is his best film in comparison to his two previous works. Personally, my sour relationship with comparative examples prevents me from making an answer to that question that will certainly be discussed, however what I can answer with certain confidence is that this film is a radical change in terms of scope and production design, because evidently the distinctive Eggersian style remains protruding in aesthetics and subject matter. To relate and find links in The Northman that may be similar to his previous films is extremely easy, especially if one parallels the thematic importance given to mythology in terms of belief and religiosity. The artisticity of Eggers’ filmmaking has a Tarkovsky-esque sublimity, Bergmanian overtones and even subtle atmospheric tinges of Dreyer’s cinema, his influences have a density of arthouse cinema that quickly becomes visible in the filmic execution of his work. The drastic distinction that The Northman has unlike his previous films is that it has an unfettered perspective on matters of cultural myth. And it seems that this is the most complete film in terms of exhibiting his marked influences in an all-in-one product.

To go from the macabre dreamlike forests of Hansel and Gretel to the 17th century puritanical severity of The Witch, and then to a nightmarish psychological torture in a Lovecraftian atmosphere, and now to teleport us to the icy rage and polytheism of Viking legends, should tell you a great deal about how they share a pronounced thematic relationship. Robert Eggers is an auteur who likes to approach the philosophical abstraction of religions in different times and in thoroughly contrasting cultures, yet one thing is an absolute in his cinema, and that is, that psychological realism is his favorite, mordant and austere form of filmmaking.

This Viking epic is a chant of gargantuan vengeance that echoes to the same rhythm as mellifluous poetry. The powerhouse collaboration between Eggers and Sjón is one of the most superlative unions of talents I have seen in recent times, and that is definitely the key to developing this writing and specifying the eurythmic structural potency of this film.

A quick general reading of the film will tell us that it is an action-fantasy drama, but a scrutinized global reading of the drama in its literary content and in its cinematic translation may tell us that it is more like an explicit tourist tour through the mind-blowing myths of the Viking Age; using a ”tourist tour” as an analogy is quite accurate because that is specifically what it is. A more legible and comprehensive way of what I have just argued is to make a somewhat far-fetched and perhaps bizarre comparison; you see, I find the aesthetic reflection in the whole film very similar to the formal attitude of the cinema of the great John Ford. To begin with, we have to note that precisely here in this film, the priorities are more contextual than dramatic, the production gives preeminence to the ceremonial, the mystical and the complex depth of poetic verse, rather than solidifying a narrative momentum or giving intensity to narrative emotions, it opts to capture the essence, the rabid masculinity, the untamed vulgarity, and the legendary ethos. John Ford was characterized by his affinity for ”costumbrismo” formality, he was not interested in a dramatic logic that managed to sustain continuous entertainment, he passionately preferred to obsess about the nature of the formal over the plot, he preferred protocol dances and awe-inspiring cavalcades rather than flashy action and fluid development. Similarly, Robert Eggers gives an eloquent preference to anthropological factors, to social relations in pagan, magical and supernatural features. The rigor of the framing, and the glorious lirical design, take us on a tour-de-forcé through the thundering Scandinavian nature and its symbolic beauties; as well as confirming that the filmic architecture of the mise-en-scène is a kind of tableau vivant that resurrects, gives tangible life, to the rich stories that have been sealed as legendary poetic narratives. The sublime writing of the poet Sjón gives the atmospheric visuals of this film something special, something intrinsic and extrinsic, textures that are at times expressionistic and at others illuminatingly impressionistic. It must be understood, with all its deliberate complexities, that this is an opus that seeks to revive the myth, to bring together a collection of stories and inspirations from the prose Edda and the poetic Edda.

The narrative framework is composed as an alliterative verse, there are repetitions that can affect the momentum and robustness of the plot, however I consider that an intriguing whim. Director Eggers is not a conformist, it is not enough for him to make a film that voluminously lives in a perennial passion for the formalities of Norse mythology, he wants to emphatically control the narrative with the same lyrical effect of what is read.

The plot begins not in the ideal way, but it gives a supreme prelude to what this insatiable quest for vengeance will mean. Once the vile and ruthless act takes its course as we see a brother betraying his own flesh and blood just for the despotic desire for power, that’s when the narrative aggression begins to bubble up, begins to draw its roots from the writings about Vikings in the Christian era; and for that very reason, one of the most virulent and corrosive versions of the Vikings ever put on film is on display here. On the surface the audience may mistakenly fall into believing that this is another film that follows the generic redundancy of revenge, yet ironically, this film is the opposite of that, it is an antithesis to revenge, as it is one of the first films I have seen about ”retributive justice” where it dramatically does not believe in it, rather it believes in the miserabilism that it generates in the human psyche. In the dense airs of this story, we are assaulted with a moral relativity, where every character we see we hate and love them for their unconscionable actions, we admire the honesty, and paradoxically the vileness, it is evident that human beings have a curious romantic dance with the desire for revenge. Hilariously, this is visible in modern civilization, where the ancient popular revenge now becomes a juridical revenge, we punish with jails, that so-called justice, in reality is an allegorical synonym for vengeance.

Alexander Skarsgård’s rough and virile imposing performance personifies barbarity, he plays the one who has a semblance of a hero but in reality is a tragic character who is more inclined to be an anti-hero. He plays one of the early prototypes for the iconic Shakespearian character Hamlet, his name is Amleth, and in appearance he is everything that in letters intimidatingly described the mythological writings. The voracious belligerence of this character makes him live repressing a rage that after many years he must consummate, and basically that’s the whole movie; is there action? Yes, of course, but those moments are not extensively elaborated, they are only as embellishments of epic cinema… here the vital thing is how the process of internalization of that external impetuosity loaded with pain, suffering and blood is portrayed. As acting balance, the stupendous Anya Taylor-Joy delivers an absolute female enchantment that vitalizes the already unrelenting testosterone of this film and lends a great sense of aesthetic emotionality. Overall, the cast is pompous but necessary of that acting grandiloquence, and Robert Eggers superbly justifies each character in this sprawling story.

One can easily get lost in the folkloric dynamics of the story, however what I find most essential in that folkloric core is how it is captured cinematically. The Northman is a film that leaves you in awe of its beauty, even though its visuals violently splatter blood everywhere, it assiduously maintains its filmic splendor. One of the most polished  camerawork seen in recent memory, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke manage to pull off kinetic miracles in complicated executions that rely on intricate geometric precision. Usually using graceful Dolly shots that move along the x-axis and then magnetically end in z-axis motions, it’s enormously complicated because the staging maintains an intense energy throughout those shots, but for the filmmakers of this movie, orchestrating such movements is delightfully effortless, at least because of their perfection is what we’re made to see. The Viking barbarism is reflected with epic imagery, and the narrative has a very stylish visual drive, nothing gets out of control in terms of narrative and visuals, and the dominant factor of the drama, which is revenge, is so zealous that it even conveys a delirious desire to see the protagonist get it. The ingenuity of this film’s script multiplies that contagious rawness with a surprising and Machiavellian anagnorisis, which feels more like an unannounced prophecy than a plot twist.

The Northman creates a Scandinavian universe with the same exquisite literality of Viking legends, it is a potent tale of revenge, which masquerades as many things only to hit you with unexpected perplexities. It is another mesmerizing film in the filmography of Robert Eggers, a filmmaker who does not disappoint.

Matteo Bedon

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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them. Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.

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