Director – Robert Eggers, Screenplay – Robert Eggers & Sjon, Producers – Robert Eggers, Mark Huffman, Lars Knudsen, Arnon Milchan, Alexander Skarsgärd, Photography – Jarin Blaschke, Music – Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough, Visual Effects Supervisor – Angela Barson, Visual Effects – Atomic Arts (Supervisor – Clwyd Edwards), Bluebolt (Supervisors – Kyle Goodsell & David Michael Scott) & Vitality Visual Effects (Jiwoong Kim), Special Effects Supervisor – Sam Conway, Prosthetics Designer – David White, Production Design – Craig Lathrop. Production Company – New Regency/Square Peg.
Alexander Skarsgärd (Amleth), Anya Taylor-Joy (Olga of the Birch Forest), Claes Bang (Fjölnir the Brotherless), Nicole Kidman (Queen Gudrun), Ethan Hawke (King Aurvandil War-Raven), Gustav Lindh (Thorir the Proud), Elliott Rose (Gunnar), Oscar Novak (Young Amleth), Willem Dafoe (Heimir the Fool), Eldar Skar (Finnir the Nose-Stub), Olwen Fouere (Ashildur Hofgytha), Björk (Seeress), Ingvar Sigurdsson (He-Witch)
Iceland, the year 895. King Aurvandil returns home from war to his queen Gudrun and young son Amleth. Aurvandil decides it is time that Amleth undergo the ceremony to become a man. Immediately after, Aurvandil is killed by his brother Fjölnir. Amleth flees the scene and grows up to become a mighty warrior among the people of the Rus. Amleth learns that a group of slaves are being sent to Fjölnir who now lives in exile as a farmer after having been deposed. After a witch gives him a vision that his destiny lies along this path, Amleth hides amongst the slaves. Along the way, Amleth befriends fellow slave Olga of the Birch Forest. She aids him as he ingratiates himself amongst Fjölnir’s farm, seeking the right moment for revenge.
The Northman is the third film from Robert Eggers. Eggers made his directorial debut with The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015), a work set in the Puritan era amid a mindset that was fearful of sin and any incursion of evil. This immediately made people pay attention to Eggers’ name. Eggers followed this with the equally acclaimed The Lighthouse (2019), which took place in a frenzied state of 19th Century cabin fever with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two men going mad on duty at a lighthouse.
With The Northman, Robert Eggers sets out to make a Viking film. There have been assorted depictions of the Viking era on film ranging from The Vikings (1958) starring Kirk Douglas, The Norseman (1980) with Lee Majors and the Michael Crichton adaptation The 13th Warrior (1999) to the more recent Pathfinder (2007) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009). Robert Eggers co-writes with Icelandic novelist Sjon, a frequent collaborator of the singer Björk (who briefly turns up as a multi-eyed witch), Eggers made a scrupulous effort at getting the historical period right and the film has been praised by historians as the most accurate one made to date about the Viking period.
I have been impressed by the immersion that Robert Eggers demands of an audience in his films – the detailed historical recreations that came in The Witch right down to the dialogue and costuming or The Lighthouse, which was taken from actual dairies of lighthouse keepers of the era. Operating with his biggest budget to date, Eggers makes an exacting recreation of the Viking period. The plot is not too much more complicated than a simple familial Revenge drama – it is essentially The Lion King (1994) made with the ultraviolent sensibilities of Pathfinder.
About 25 minutes in, Eggers stages a brutal and visceral scene that goes on for five minutes as Alexander Skarsgärd, stripped to the waist, covered in blood and long hair, leads a party of berserkers as they raid a village, slaughtering all and sundry. The scene has a savagery to it that puts you fully in the seat. More than that though, Eggers absorbs you in the cultural ritual – of warrior chanting around the fire, ceremonies where they are encouraged to unleash their inner wolf spirit before an altar to Odin to the game of knattleikr, which is like a Viking version of grass hockey but with more bloodshed.
It is also a work where the Norse worldview is incorporated – see Norse Mythology. Alexander Skarsgärd receives visions of the Yggdrasil tree and riding off to Valhalla. We get appearances from Björk and Olwen Fouere as witches, as well as a character called the He-Witch who seems to channel the spirit of Almeth’s father through a skull, while both the He-Witch and Björk’s Seeress give Skarsgärd prophecies of his destiny. Elsewhere, Alexander Skarsgärd is required to fight something called a Mound Dweller (the undead draugr from Norse myth) in order to get a magical sword needed for his battle. He is even aided by ravens that appear to be an augury sent by his father, which free him from imprisonment at one point.
What becomes almost overwhelming is Robert Eggers’ visual style. In an era where mainstream filmmaking has left you feeling that artistic composition is a dead artform, his visual palette offers up some incredibly exciting cinematography. What astonishes about the film is its brooding primality – the landscapes look bare and untouched by modernity in any way. the seas and skies are a dreary grey, Alexander Skarsgärd and Anya Taylor-Joy make love in hot pools with picturesque waterfalls in the background, while the climactic showdown takes place near an active volcano (like Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005), this seems to make the assumption that people having swordfights only metres away from a lava flow would not be doing so as though right next to an open blast furnace).
Alexander Skarsgärd is an actor who has made an impressive rise as a name since he first gained attention in tv’s True Blood (2008-14). He’s been in genre roles that are all over the place – from playing the Lord of the Jungle in The Legend of Tarzan (2016), Randall Flagg in The Stand (2020-1) to the bad guy in the remake of Straw Dogs (2011), a naval officer in Battleship (2012) and a good guy in Godzilla vs Kong (2021). At 6’4.5”, Skarsgärd commands great physical presence and yet it is something he seems shy about – when you see him, he is constantly hunched over, seems to be looking up from under his brow or a slightly turned head as though ashamed of his height. He seems to radiate permanently coiled violence and commands the screen completely when he erupts into action.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who has emerged into an It Girl since her first screen appearance in Robert Eggers’ The Witch, appears somewhat subdued beside Skarsgärd. The name that captures your attention is Nicole Kidman in what is mostly a supporting role for most of the film, until the scene where Skarsgärd reveals himself to her, which contains some great acting on her part.
Trailer 2 here