Review: The Northman (2022)

Preamble

When it rains, it pours. I’m back with another post (hopefully the start of many) and could not think of a better film to write about then The Northman. It’s an effort that’s not been on my radar. In fact, it has seemingly snuck up on me like a ninja. But tortured analogies asides, what did you think of The Northman? Let me know in the comments below. And if you like my ramblings on horror movies then you can find more of my written work on the genre at my second home- Horror Obsessive. https://horrorobsessive.com/author/sartaj-singh/

Review

So far, Robert Eggers has singled himself out as a director who makes surreal and mad capped psychological chamber pieces. His 2016 effort, The Witch was almost a call to arms for the recent trend of elevated horror with its depiction of an outcast New England family, succumbing to the feverish paranoia of their puritanical beliefs. Eggers’s follow-up, The Lighthouse was a tense and maddening morality play about a character’s descent into madness over the stories he hears about the title location. With a bigger canvas within a new genre, The Northman is a roaring and potent revenge parable about the dehumanising effect of myth.

The 2022 film is about a Viking prince called Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). He seeks revenge after his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), marries his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and takes over his kingdom. After spending many years in exile as a Viking raider, Amleth gets his chance to exact bloody vengeance when he disguises himself as a slave in his uncle’s farming community. He’s joined by a young priestess, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who seeks her own sense of retribution.

Early on, The Northman plays like a parody of a Robert Eggers film with typical arch line deliveries and exaggerated character actions (particularly a scene where three characters do their best impressions of howling wolves) becoming mockable as opposed to fascinatingly otherworldly. These aspects paired with what seemed like a one-note premise worried me greatly. However, the film finds its footing with its cinematic flourishes and imagery.

In particular, a motif of imagery that depicts Amleth’s family tree within the confines of the Yggdrasil tree draws the eye. In an era where Viking and by extension Norse mythology has reached near saturation point, Egger’s grungy storybook depiction of the supernatural aspects of the Nordic culture visually stands out. I also appreciated how he used scale to illustrate quite poignant incidents. In an early scene, there’s a tracking shot of a boy being separated from his mother in the general chaos of a raid on a village. The camera almost becomes shy as it subtly loops to show a group of villagers being forced into a barn before it’s set on fire. The harrowing incident ends with a cold and callous closeup of Amleth.

Moments like this go a long way to illustrating a subtle shift in Egger’s thematic concerns. In previous films, there was a sense that the characters were shaped by the myths in their respective worlds. But these aspects were ambiguous, often posited as possible things that transformed the protagonists, i.e the existence of the title figure in The Witch or Willem Dafoe’s character being a vengeful sea-based God in The Lighthouse. In The Northman, the supernatural and the real world have a much closer alignment. Part of this comes from a change in genre. But there’s also this idea of the characters being vessels for the supernatural to exact their will.

This especially applies to Amleth who carries the will of his father to exact revenge on his uncle and community. Aside from the implications of the Gods being directly involved with this spiteful mission, Amleth also carries a self-perpetuating myth of his father as a man and leader. The Northman’s best moments are when this perception is subverted and shattered to illustrate a tragic and sobering reality. Through a combination of pre-scripted myth and honouring the bonds of revenge (from his father), the young Prince becomes a dehumanised individual who does not care for the lives he savagely dispatches (throughout the film).

It’s in these aspects where The Northman transforms from a standard revenge thriller in Viking clothing to a tragic and heightened parable about the effect that myth and parenthood can have on a person’s character. But aside from this subtle shift in theme, I found the film appealing in other regards.

The middle stretch is akin to Gladiator if it was rewritten as a grotesque slasher film with religious overtones. There’s also one sequence where a character has to get a sword from a tomb that plays like a scrapped tutorial level from a Dark Souls game. And in a film where it mostly feels like the performances are delivered at the same intense pitch, I found Nicole Kidman’s showcasing of motherly love and poisonous affection to be impressive in its understated power.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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