‘The Northman’ fails to live up to expectations
Robert Eggers’s latest film leaves the audience desensitized to brutality
Directed by Robert Eggers
Screenplay by Robert Eggers and Sjón
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe
Rated R, In theaters April 22
Spoiler alert: Major plot points are discussed in this review.
Known for his tales of violent gore, Robert Eggers delivers another brutal story with his latest film, The Northman. The nihilistic tale follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest to avenge his father and reclaim the throne from his murderous uncle. While the plot presents an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is not nearly as intentional or well-written. Amleth’s thirst for revenge is idealized and mistaken for honor — to him, there is no greater glory than dying in the fields of battle.
Amleth enters princehood after going through a bestial experience with his father (Ethan Hawke): hollering, burping, and farting as animals do. A wolf spirit possesses him and King Aurvandill as they buck off the final chains of their humanity. Soon after, his uncle Thorfinnr (Claes Bang) triggers Amleth’s revenge tale by delivering a killing blow to Aurvandill. Amleth escapes and enraged, he begins his transformation into the muscled warrior he must become to exact revenge, all the while chanting a promise to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and save his kingdom.
Along the way, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful white-haired Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who claims to have a cunning mind. Amleth steals away onto the boat where she is enslaved and returns to his kingdom in hopes of stealing back the crown. Together, Amleth and Olga wreak havoc, sabotaging Thorfinnr and attempting to rescue Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman). For all of Olga’s declarations of guile, we never really find evidence of it. Throughout her time with Amleth, her intentions are decidedly transparent. She follows Amleth no matter the foolishness of his actions, leaving us finding Olga’s character forced and overly sexualized.
Rather than romanticizing the hero’s tale, the film exposes the brutal realities of the Viking kill-or-be-killed lifestyle through action sequences and gore. Death takes the center stage as Eggers finds novel ways to enliven beheadings, mutilation, and abundant bloodshed. The characters on the screen are nothing more than animals in human flesh, slaves to their primal urges. The Northman is not for the faint-hearted; it demands audiences examine the ravenous creature that lies beneath the human mind.
It’s a relief, then, that the film showcases exceptional cinematography and a hefty budget, because it doesn’t have much else to offer. The Northman serves only those seeking an audiovisual experience for its own sake. Amleth undergoes no character development, staying true to his barbaric roots throughout the film. His desire to avenge his father precludes any potential redemption for his sins, shutting the door to considerations of his own personal happiness. Perhaps in true Viking nature, his sacrifices are glorified continuously throughout the film to the point of boredom. The viewer’s initial disgust with the gore wears off within the first thirty minutes. Although the film begins to ask questions about the human desire for love, relationships, and happiness, it comes to an end before truly addressing any of them.
For a film with such exceptional actors, Eggers does not utilize them well. One might make the argument that the inconsistent Scottish-inspired accents were regional dialects, but this claim doesn’t hold water. Despite their best attempts, the actors’ lack of uniformity in their accents leaves viewers confused at best and disinterested at worst.
Even the action subsides into an anticlimactic finale at the “gates of hell.” For a film that markets itself as a revenge tale, we fail to see Amleth’s thirst for vengeance realized beyond ubiquitous beheadings. The audience is left desensitized to brutality without having gained any insight into the human experience. The characters fall short of the personalities they claim to exhibit. While the audience can certainly appreciate certain elements of the film, at the end of the day The Northman fails to live up to expectations.