Director Robert Eggers has built a career for himself crafting intricate films that blend surrealist imagery with a deep interest in history and folklore. The Witch and The Lighthouse are both of a kind; they’re the sort of high-concept horror films that, if you connected with them, you still recommend to others at your own peril. They’re not for everyone. Still, Eggers’ vision on those films is so singular that cult followings formed immediately and persist. These days, it seems the career path for most talented independent filmmakers involves directing one or two well-received features before being scooped up by a big studio to direct a tentpole. In some other universe, maybe Eggers ended up directing an HBOMax spinoff of The Batman; thankfully, his mainstream turn comes in the form of The Northman, a film that aims for wider appeal than his previous efforts but still feels fully of his own creative vision. Although it follows a more straightforward story, it’s mostly got weirdness where it counts.
The story is based in part on the Scandanavian legend of Amleth, which served as direct inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A prince swears revenge when his father is murdered by his uncle, who then steals his mother. Basic stuff. In Eggers’ telling, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) witnesses the death of his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who steals Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth escapes their kingdom as a child and is raised as a berserker by Vikings. He grows strong, bathed in blood and brutality, but fate does not allow him to forget the vow he made the day he ran: Avenge father. Save mother. Kill Fjölnir.
That’s what you learn from the trailers, of course, which promise a bizarre medieval Viking revenge film. Eggers delivers that and honestly not much more. Given the fact that the film is very good, it seems silly to warn that The Northman is ultimately pretty conventional — but fans of The Witch and The Lighthouse (or those who despised them) should probably be aware that this is not those films.
Comparisons to his previous work aside, The Northman is engrossing, exciting and, most of all, utterly gorgeous. Eggers uses the additional budget to go all-out in his aesthetic choices. His adherence to historic authenticity is allowed to run wild, with cultural sequences that feel ripped from a history book he happened to enjoy. His tendency to frame subjects in the center for the shot, as if filming portraits, is used to tremendous effect, particularly when he introduces the romance between Amleth and sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). She is, as always, excellent.
Although it’s extremely violent (dead children abound), quite a lot of the gore is kept just off-screen — reserved in such a way that feels explicitly designed to avoid an NC-17 rating. It’s a small price to pay for Eggers being allowed to run wild on a studio’s dime, making the sort of blockbuster only he could make. He benefits from adapting one of Western culture’s most iconic plots, which lets him fill in the particulars with his own flights of fancy. Icelandic artist Björk appears as a seeress, and Willem Dafoe gets some excellent material on which to chew. There’s enough Gladiator DNA to sell tickets, and those new to Eggers will only occasionally wonder what the hell they’re watching.
Still, there are certainly those moments, and it will be interesting to see if those bits are off-putting to wider audiences. An R-rated thriller is a hard sell these days anyway, at least without the benefit of an IP, even if it tries to hit familiar territory. The Northman won’t likely gain the same level of critical notoriety, and it may still be hard to recommend to audiences who want something shorter, less odd and more to the point. All told, though, it’s a wonder Eggers was even allowed to make something this relatively personal at all. Hopefully he continues to find opportunities like this.