Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang
The cinema of Robert Eggers is hard and earthen. An arena of of myth and madness fashioned from wood, stone and mud. Three for three he has brought us visions of the past cloaked in moods of dark mysticism entwined with the most exacting period detail. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse showcased a fealty with idioms of the past. His films feel not just lived in, but breathed in, sweated in, pissed in, bled in.
These are the qualities that make him an essential presence in the modern American filmmaking arena. It’d be naive to ignore the usefulness of digital effects work in his films, yet still his brand of storytelling retains a physicality that’s a tonic when set beside the weightless gloss and CG sheen of most current Hollywood tendencies. Eggers’ films look and feel like efforts of graft. You can sense the hot muscles aching at the end of a day’s shooting.
Speaking of hot muscles, here’s Alexander Skarsgård. So often the interesting supporting player, he finally showcases his chops as a leading man in Eggers’ latest – a 5th century viking epic; the ballsiest of it’s kind since Nicolas Winding Refn’s nightmarish Valhalla Rising.
Skarsgård is Amleth, nomad son on fallen King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) who was struck down in front of him as a child by his treacherous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth makes vengeance his mantra, building an entire ethos around avenging his father’s death and rescuing his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), from Fjölnir’s felonious clutches. But having a zealot’s focus on one specific end perhaps blinds him to opportunities along the way to carve out a new destiny…
Eggers made cryptic reference recently to how painful he found editing The Northman to a length that Universal found pleasing, suggestive of a worrying level of interference in his creative process. Pained it may have been, but the finished product shows little in the way of this suffering. Editor Louise Ford has worked wonders. This theatrical cut is boldly, wantonly strange cinema, thank Óðinn. It’s not ten minutes before we’re witness to black arts bonding in a sweat lodge between father and son (Oscar Novak is Young Amleth) in the presence of cock-slapping jester Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe). Along the way Eggers’ journey will add in a witch’s visions (Björk, striking as The Seeress), magic mushrooms, incestual temptations, men howling like dogs and much, much more.
Once the film falls to the expansive shoulders of Skarsgård, it settles into a quite particular and brooding shape. Amleth’s fate is presented to him so clearly that he forestalls quick vengeance in favour of awaiting the circumstance foretold to him. In a sense this dawdling engenders suffering and downfall – his own and others. Not that he sits twiddling his thumbs, mind. Having acquired a position in Fjölnir’s company as a slave, this wolf in sheep’s clothing busies himself with one-sided psychological warfare, aided and abetted by fellow slave and inevitable love Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy).
But those hungry for violence fear not. While we’re made to wait for the promised bloodletting of the film’s brazenly operatic finale – atop a volcano no less – Eggers ensures our appetites are whetted along the way. An early example of viking pillaging leaves the viewer with no illusions about where Amleth comes from, or his people’s capacity for cruelty. It also stands as a calling card for Eggers’ ability to direct show-stopping action. He leads us through the village in torment in long takes that tell stories all of their own, adhering to a brutal logic of inevitability.
More often than not, however, The Northman concerns itself with the rites and rituals of it’s people. These ceremonies – recreated in exacting detail – become the vivid set pieces that string this proto-Hamlet story together (Shakespeare would no doubt have been inspired by Nordic tales). In this sense, the film feels a strong kinship to folk horror; in touching distance of the likes of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, even.
Both The Witch and The Lighthouse were insular experiences which hemmed characters in, weaponising the ensuing claustrophobia to ratcheted the pressure. Though The Northman beds down, it feels far freer than Eggers’ previous films. Sat in the vastness of the Icelandic grasslands, Fjölnir’s modest stronghold is nakedly exposed. It matches the sense of vastness and ambition in the storytelling, which is more plotted than both prior films (Eggers aided in scriptwriting by Icelandic author Sjón). Here it is Amleth’s myopic insistence on manifesting fate that keeps everything tightly contained.
And, while it seems rather convenient that Amleth can slip away as he pleases every night to perform his little side-quests, said exploits are among the film’s most joyful diversions (claiming a special sword; reuniting unexpectedly with Heimir; getting sexy with Olga).
Certain tics that presented themselves in The Lighthouse recur here like developing signatures (the 90 degree turn to alight on a point of interest, for instance), but mostly The Northman seems to find Eggers extending his reach and taking on new challenges. Technically speaking, the film seems to have few flaws, furthering a sense that use of the overused superlative “visionary” might well be justified in this instance. Yet even as Eggers plays in the sandbox of so-called ‘epic’ filmmaking, the sensibility he applies feel all his own. All departments shine; he corrals something vivid and singular from them.
His cast are a dream. Skarsgård is a guttural revelation. Bang firmly resists moustache-twirling, in the process asking us to question Amleth’s biased perspective of a hero’s tale. Kidman, meanwhile, is kept relatively sidelined, until she unfurls magnificently in one truly batshit scene. Taylor-Joy’s Olga is a pleasingly eager yet mildly sidelined presence. Still, her scenes with Skarsgård make the couple seem iconic together; totems of mythic beauty in Eggers’ landscapes of muck, innards and roiling waves.
The temptation to imprint The Northman with modern day commentary on colonialism etc is there, but in truth this is a piece that feels so singularly carved from the past as to remain there in tact, without linkage to our tumultuous present. Going to see The Northman, sitting in the dark with it, is a fantasist’s form of time travel. Take the trip.