Review: Herculean storytelling shines in ‘The Northman’


“The Northman” is director Robert Eggers’ latest work. The film takes viewers on a vast, brutal journey through Viking territory. Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Jake Guldin, news correspondent

Women and children weep as heads roll and villages burn in director Robert Eggers’s bloody and violent revenge epic, “The Northman.” 

Focus Features’ latest release follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a brooding and vindictive Viking prince, as he seeks retribution for his slain father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke); freedom for his kidnapped mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and the death of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who is responsible for both injustices.

Throughout his quest, Amleth encounters an array of colorful characters including the mysterious and knowledgeable prophetess, Seeress (Björk), the spirit of the late jester, Heimir (Willem Dafoe) and the Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).

The actors in this all-star ensemble shine both individually and together, brilliantly bringing this tale of regicide and vengeance to life. Skarsgård and Kidman are the true standouts, delivering exceptional performances in scenes together — an unsurprising feat given their Emmy-winning work as a married couple in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” — and apart.

Skarsgård, who worked extensively to achieve a Viking’s physique, is menacing and ferocious as Amleth. He intimidates his enemies before hacking through swaths of them with ease. The Swedish actor’s performance is not one-note, however, as he still excels in the film’s quieter moments. His intimate scenes with Taylor-Joy’s Olga, in particular, affirm this. Skarsgård relinquishes the character’s barbaric and vengeful instincts when speaking to Olga, bringing sensitivity and depth to the role.

Kidman is equally effective in her multifaceted performance as Queen Gudrún, meticulously crafting a character who subverts expectations at every turn. Against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, Kidman’s Queen Gudrún is in control of each of her scenes. The Australian actress also relays the multiple dimensions of her character, highlighting new complexities in each scene. In one revelatory moment from the film’s second act, she shifts from maternal to conniving to seductive in the span of a few minutes, unsettling viewers just as intended in the process.

Further working to discompose viewers are the film’s technical elements, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, Louise Ford’s editing, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score and C.C. Smith’s fight choreography all working in tandem to achieve Eggers’ desired effect: a story that unflinchingly depicts the vitriol and scorn of the Viking Age’s archaic warriors.

This is perhaps most evident in one of the film’s earlier scenes, in which Amleth, alongside the band of Vikings that found and raised him after his father’s death, terrorizes the citizens of a nearby village. The sequence, presented as a long take with no visible cuts, forces the audience to watch as these berserkers commit a plethora of abhorrent evils. 

Blaschke’s focused framing makes it impossible for viewers to miss any of Amleth’s vicious, inhumane kills as Eggers and his cinematographer linger on every deep gash and severed limb before panning over to the protagonist’s next victim. Smith’s fight choreography is a marvel to behold in this sequence, as the choreographer makes every confrontation between Amleth and his opponents feel legitimate and urgent; never coming across as orchestrated or subdued. Ford’s editing is superb, masking every cut to create the illusion that the scene was shot all at once. Carolan and Gainsborough’s score amplifies the on-screen destruction, with their percussion-heavy accompaniment joining the assault on the villagers and, by extension, the audience.

Their collaborative efforts behind the camera — in conjunction with those in front of it — culminate in a scene that quickly establishes what viewers should expect to see for the remainder of the film’s two hour and 17 minute runtime.

“The Northman” is a hypergraphic Viking film that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Those willing to brave the film’s brutal onslaught, however, will be rewarded with a uniquely provocative moviegoing experience.