Review: Robert Eggers' 'The Northman' is an Unhinged Disappointment
by Tamara Khodova
May 9, 2022
There is no greater feeling when you go to see a movie for the first time without any expectations, and it blows you away or even changes your life entirely. And there is nothing worse when a movie that you have been anticipating for a long time turns out to be a huge disappointment. Crushed hopes are a bitter pill to swallow. In that regard, writer / director Robert Eggers with his gloomy and hypnotizing film The Witch, and goofy yet profound The Lighthouse, was a safe harbor for cinephiles who were always in a search for something original. Even after sleeping for only four hours and standing in a line for three more hours just to see The Lighthouse in Cannes in 2019, I knew that it was worth it (and it was). I hate to say the director's new endeavor The Northman falls victim to the same virtues that gained him acclaim in the first place.
Prince Amleth (played as a boy by Oscar Novak) is just a little cub protected by his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) when his father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), who has just returned from the war, decides that it's time for his son to become a man. During the ritual, which includes the wild Willem Dafoe, along with lots of farting and burping, Amleth swears to protect his noble bloodline. The very next day King Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir the Brotherless (played by the ridiculously handsome Claes Bang) kills him, takes his wife away and orders to kill the young Prince. The latter escapes but with an intention to come back to avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir.
It is said that the screenplay by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and screenwriter Sjón is based on the legend of Amleth which, in turn, inspired William Shakespeare's play "Hamlet". To be honest with you none of it matters as The Northman comes out as a raw revenge story with lots of men in leather underwear yelling at each other. After a somber prologue we encounter Amleth as a huge berserk killing machine (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) and a part of a band of Vikings who devastate villages in the land of Rus.
As a filmmaker, Eggers is known for his love for research, obsession with historical accuracy, and nearly undecipherable dialogue. In The Northman all of it becomes unhinged in a bad sense: disembowelment, beheading, blood, dirt, roaring, howling, an unusually active camera with long tracking shots, and a very angry Alexander Skarsgård in the middle of it all. Very soon he becomes so angry that it’s just impossible to take this seriously. Despite the longing for accuracy, all I could think of was how much fun (or not) it was for actors to yell naked at each other on set. It reminded me of an episode of "Friends" when Gary Oldman taught Joey good acting by spitting on each other's faces.
Most of the actors (except Dafoe and Björk) seem out of place: Nicole Kidman looks exactly like Nicole Kidman in medieval dress, Claes Bang seems tired of all the nonsense of the production, Anya Taylor-Joy is even less believable as Russian sorceress Olga than Anna Delvy aka Sorokin as a German billionaire, and Alexander Skarsgård's acting is reduced to constant sulking. The main character comes in as an empty shell deprived of thoughts, feelings, and motivations except one – revenge. His father was killed, what else do you need? It is really hard to sympathize with any of the characters. All of them are cruel savages who slay each other in a fight for power. I guess nothing has changed since 915 A.D.
Eggers becomes so consumed by the outward verisimilitude that he completely forgets to give the film any inner essence. Stripped of complexities and context, The Northman turns out to be an unreasonably brutal, heavy on cheesy CGI, weird accents and ridiculous English dialogue, lengthy revenge drama that brings nothing new to the table. I was desperate to find any undertones to this unfortunate story, but don’t you dare demand philosophical concepts from savage Vikings! Amleth had to follow his destiny because Björk the witch told him so and so he did, and this is how it ends. That's all there is to it.
The climax is even duller than everything else leading up to it. Even the celebrated accuracy does not hold. Show me the Viking who used the word "person" in the Xth century, and I will suggest to him some nice coffee shops where we could drink matcha and discuss toxic masculinity. In the end you may find yourself in the darkness of the movie theater wondering how come you thought of a funny scene from "Friends" in the middle of a serious historic drama. Maybe it was a comedy after all? If it was then you got me.
Tamara's Rating: 2 out of 5
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