The Northman Review

I visited an animatronic Viking attraction in York recently. It was very charming and light-hearted and created a warm and safe learning environment.

Suffice to say, it did not prepare me for the blood-spattering gut-punch that is The Northman.

Robert Eggers’ much-awaited Viking movie hits the screens this week; or rather, bludgeons, butchers and batters the screens this week.

The screenplay, co-written with Icelandic poet Sjón, is a retelling of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, from which Shakespeare’s Hamlet was derived.

Set at the end of the ninth century, the story revolves around young Viking Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), who finds himself on the run when tragedy strikes his family.

Many years later and no longer a prince, he’s grown into Alexander Skarsgård, and vengeance is still very much on his mind.

In fact, it’s the second time in as many months that I’ve been impressed by a big-screen release where the main character, The Something-man, growls about how they are vengeance personified.

Posing as a slave, Amleth encounters slave-girl Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who helps him plot against the man who wronged him and save those that he loves.

There’s a whiff of 2000’s Gladiator to this, in terms of scope and ambition; arguably in terms of plot too, but Eggers’ film plays around with the familiar storyline and deftly deconstructs mythological tropes.

Over the two decades since Ridley Scott’s Roman epic, film-making has evolved and the Viking genre has grown in popularity, partly thanks to fare like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. There have also been several other directly-related Viking TV shows, with varying degrees of success. 
Despite the increasing crowded nature of this genre, Eggers firmly puts his stamp down and has created a stunning and visceral epic.

Having loved The Witch, but missed The Lighthouse, I can only guess that the director has made a quantum leap in scale with his third film. The naturalistic shooting conditions, the long takes, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s atmospheric score; it all immerses you in the blood soaked world of ninth century Vikings. 

Despite running over two hours, it’s also quite a lean film, zipping along at pace as if matching Amleth’s drive.

Speaking of whom, Skarsgård’s Amleth evokes vulnerability despite his often feral physicality, and manages to avoid being a one-dimensional hero. Frankly, there are no heroes in the world of The Northman.

Brutal and uncompromising, The Northman lives up to the hype. You’ll hear of many must-see films this year; this definitely is one of them. 

Conor Brennan

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April 2022