The Northman, the third film from arthouse auteur Robert Eggers, is a guttural, savage and ferocious 10th century Norse revenge epic that’s bound to leave viewers awestruck. Beginning in 895 AD, in the kingdom of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), we find the ruler returning from battle to initiate his 10-year-old son Amleth as heir to his throne. However, soon after the hallucinatory ceremony conducted by the court jester/shaman Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), Aurvandill is betrayed by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) – who murders him and claims his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for himself. The young prince flees to sea, vowing to avenge his father and save his mother.
Cut to 930 AD, where the prince has grown into a monstrous and muscular Viking berserker (Alexander Skarsgård), prowling the lands of Eastern Europe and pillaging Slavic villages. Calcified by rage, Amleth is now a legendary terror, vacillating between animalistic ruthlessness and pensive humanity. In the aftermath of a raid, Amleth wanders trance-like, and encounters a seer (Björk), who tells him his for vengeance has come. Happenstance brings Amleth into the clutches of Fjölnir, who has lost the throne and now runs a farm in the wilds of Iceland. Disguised as a slave, Amleth infiltrates the farm, discovering that his mother is married to Fjölnir and has borne him a son. With the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow slave who wields the power of sorcery, Amleth begins to exact his brutal, bloody, and often horrific retribution.
Fans of Eggers’ smaller-scale features may be surprised by the scale of this historical saga – but while this is his most accessible film to date – the director’s unconventional sensibilities make this a blockbuster spectacle unlike any other in the mainstream. In his 2015 debut The Witch, he studied transcripts of 15th century American witch trials to craft a creepy Satanic horror steeped in harsh realism. His 2019 follow up The Lighthouse, he mixed mermaids and other sea lore into a 19th century chamber psychodrama about madness and isolation. Though The Northman is far more ambitious, Eggers remains a stickler for historical detail – with the sets, costumes, artifacts, and way of life designed to be as period accurate as possible. But amidst the meticulous attention to muddy, bloody, grim-caked authenticity, Eggers is still as keen to present the religious beliefs and myths of the time as matter-of-factly as his settings’ conditions and culture.
The Northman’s flights into the mystical are steeped in the Viking and Nordic beliefs of the time. Fantastical interludes include Amleth communing with an astral projection, fighting an undead skeleton to claim a sword, and chatting to the disembodied head of an old friend. These moments are allowed to be fanciful and thrilling, but like The Witch and The Lighthouse, they aren’t supernatural to the characters, they’re just as real as the harshness of the cold or the blood spilt in medieval warfare. To ensure fidelity, Eggers teamed with Icelandic novelist and screenwriter Sjón to dig into Viking history, culture, sagas, poems and Danish legends – one of which was the story of Prince Amleth – which famously became the source material for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, (Hamlet is an anagram of Amleth).
So if you find the story familiar, this is why. Yet The Northman is not Shakespearean – it is proto Shakespearean. Amleth is a feral beast with a singular goal without any of Hamlet’s angst, and this story is decidedly unromantic about the era, disregarding any classical ideas of morality or heroism. The Northman lives and breathes like the old epics; not Old Hollywood’s cartoonish depictions of warriors with shiny horned helmets, or even the plays and literature of the Renaissance – but the truly ancient tales to which Eggers pays deep respect. In dramatizing the internal tug-of-war between Amleth’s grim, fated destiny and the opportunity for a more mundane life as a farmer, Eggers indulges both the grand folklore of the Viking age and the commonplace reality that shaped it, successfully creating an uncivilized odyssey that feels grounded in the actual demands of civilization.
Buoyed by an outstanding ensemble who go all-in on Eggers’ vision (braving bitter shooting conditions and spouting outlandishly accented dialogue), unparalleled immersion into an intensely alien world, and a naked final battle between Fjölnir and Amleth atop an active volcano that will make your jaw drop – The Northman is truly a staggering feat of filmmaking. Primordial and punishing, this is a high-octane, blood-soaked war cry that erupts with raging testosterone – and yet is brimming still with rich themes that are worthy of cerebral analysis. In an era where big-budget historical epics have fallen by the wayside to vaporous superhero adventures, it’s great to see indie filmmakers like David Lowery (The Green Knight) and Robert Eggers unexpectedly revitalize the genre.