Robert Eggers has a unique gift for storytelling, an uncommon trait in common land. Eggers is uncommon in that there are few modern directors working today who can keep an audience captivated with a sublime heady story while paying attention to the innate details behind crucial details of a movie: performances, set decorations, cinematography, music; he understands the intricacies of storytelling, drawing you into his world through existential performances and violence working hand in hand. Eggers’ imagination flourishes in the eras in which he sets his stories. He did it with 2015’s “The Witch” and again with 2019’s “The Lighthouse.” “The Northman,” now in theaters, is such a film.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, the prince and heir to an Irish kingdom ruled over by his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). There is a bond between father and son, although the lengthy-time Aurvandill is away on his conquests, that mother, Queen Gudrun, a fantastic Nicole Kidman, does not share with her son. Early in the film, there’s a moment where she chastises the young Amleth (Oscar Novak) for entering their bed-chamber unwelcome; this is a moment where we can sit back and say, “ah-ha, we’re in for a treat.” Eggers creates a richness in the characters early on in the film.
One of Eggers’ stalwart members of his troupe, Willem Dafoe, makes a brief appearance in the film; the actor is as razor-sharp as he has ever been. Claes Bang plays Fjolnir, Amleth’s uncle, and it is between Bang and Skarsgård that we spend the majority of the story between these two characters. Both are stubborn men, each protecting a legacy and a secret. Bang chooses to be at the fore. Fjolnir reminded me of Commodus from Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”: petulant, demanding, and undeserving of his place. Bang’s performance is strong, but it is nothing without Skarsgård’s Amleth. Amleth forges his path, not by being loud or boisterous but by keeping his head down through thick and thin.
These actions lead him to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga. Eggers, Taylor-Joy, Skarsgård, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke use the visual space to convey their attraction to each other without dialogue. Their love is palpable, felt through the screen amidst the violence that Amleth, exceptionally well-defined, flowing hair, reminiscent of his character look from “The Legend of Tarzan,” only more menacing. Skarsgård sears a touch of empathy into the character, again felt through the actor’s body language rather than through dialogue. Without becoming cliché about it, Amleth is a facsimile of Russell Crowe’s Maximus: someone with a true heart, who knows what his charges need to thrive, a benevolence.
Conversations between the characters, as we saw within the tight, cramped spaces of the lighthouse between Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson’s Thomas Howard. Blaschke uses the expansive, natural landscapes of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to expand on Eggers’ penchant for character-driven moments; the intimacy with which characters communicate is still expertly captured. “The Northman” expands Eggers’ view of his world, and we’re better for it.
Bang plays the antagonist to the hilt with several scenes showing off his pomp and circumstance. The actor avails himself of the moments that co-screenwriters, Sjon, better known as Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson and Eggers, give the actor a lot of scenery to chew on, a theatricality that permeates the Irish landscape. Skarsgård is afforded no less, and as Amleth begins his quest for vengeance, the theatricality and violence expand. The violence is never excessive, and the intimate character moments flourish due to the duo’s script.
The visual and the spoken word can’t work without a heartbeat to pump the blood through its veins. Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score fits the bill effectively, coursing rhythmic beats throughout, drawing us further into the experience, the tragedy, and ultimately the grace.
In their hot takes, other critics have compared “The Northman” to Zack Snyder’s “300.” In all deference to my colleagues, I have not seen Snyder’s adaptation of the graphic comic book, a cinema sin I intend to rectify soon. The comparison might be on point for character alone. It might be in the story; I’ll discover this for myself.
Suffice it to say, “The Northman” is its animal and a welcome one in the arthouse circuit with its theatricality, stunning visuals, and explicit violence.
Maybe John Logan was right when he put, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity” into the mouth of Maximus. Robert Eggers expands upon that idea with grace, honor, and humility twenty-two years later.
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