The Northman (2022)
The Northman (2022)

Genre: Action and Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 16 min.

Release Date: April 22nd, 2022 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Robert Eggers Actors: Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Gustav Lindh, Elliott Rose, Eldar Skar, Willem Dafoe, Bjork

 


 

T

he year is 895 A.D. King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) has returned home to his Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their young son Amleth after a grueling campaign against their adversaries. But unbeknownst to him, his most dangerous enemy resides even closer – his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who soon betrays the throne, killing Aurvandil and taking Gudrun for himself. Amleth narrowly manages to escape the slaughter, swearing an oath to take revenge on the man that upended his world. Years pass, finding an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) now razing villages with his adopted Viking family in the Land of the Rus. When he encounters a mysterious Seeress (Bjork) who reminds him of his promise of vengeance, Amleth realizes he cannot escape his destiny. Learning of Fjolnir’s whereabouts, the relentless warrior disguises himself as a prisoner and boards a boat headed to Iceland. Once there, with the aid of the enchanting maiden Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the will of the gods themselves, Amleth sets into motion his bloodthirsty plot to avenge his father’s murder.

Though it immediately resembles “The Lighthouse” with its black-and-white palette and foggy waterfront views, suddenly a splash of color dances across the screen, suggesting that this may be a higher-contrast design. Oddly, despite the brief glimpses of reds and greens, much of the film remains dark and turbid, revealing an exceptionally unglamorous interpretation of Viking lore (save for the physically fit cast). Yet the cinematography intermittently reminds of Wes Anderson, as the characters tend to be perfectly centered in the frame, background objects move in parallel to dollying motions, and the majority of the conversations are conducted as if speaking directly into the camera; it’s almost as if the intention is to remove any sense of three-dimensionality during tighter shots, generating incredibly flat compositions. At other, rarer moments – chiefly with wide angles – the environments play a major part, using rain, snow, fire, ice, mud, and greenery (often mixed with sweat and spittle) to highlight or augment the griminess of the era.

It’s clearly a tremendously artistic approach to the ninth century, despite the straightforward adaptation of sets, makeup, costuming, and armory. Even the abundance of rites and rituals are likely authentic, though writer/director Robert Eggers dwells on these entirely too much, letting the camera linger long after the somewhat spellbinding weirdness of chanting and dancing and witchery have shifted into monotony. The runtime could have been noticeably shortened if the repetitiousness of these ancient customs, which translates poorly to modern viewers’ senses of awe, were simply trimmed down.

“Let this misdeed haunt your living nights.” Flowery, Shakespearean, contemporary dialogue gives the picture an undeniable realism – perhaps removing all the fantasy and adventure from something as over-the-top as “Conan the Barbarian” – yet the script still pauses at regular intervals to have characters explain the specifics of their intentions and missions. It’s as if Eggers is afraid that audiences will miss plot points, and so must reiterate them with less elaborate words. Problematically, however, the plot is unusually basic; the notion of a betrayed youth growing up to avenge his wrongdoers is just too commonplace. Even with the constant reveries, flashbacks, and hallucinations, joined by notes of mysticism, prophecies, and inalterable fate, the premise presents few surprises. Eggers may not have had the ability to stay true to his vision, as the larger budget (typically tied to studio interference) surely persuaded him to embrace more complex, commercially viable combat sequences to spice up what could have been an otherwise punishingly slow revenge epic; or perhaps the balancing act between action and symbolism isn’t his forte.

Nevertheless, “The Northman” boasts astonishingly graphic violence, making the most of axe-wielding, sword-slashing, and throat-cutting – all of which tend to draw fans. But when brutality isn’t the focus, the film vacillates between the atmosphere and storytelling of “Braveheart,” “Spartacus,” Roger Corman’s tatty peplum pictures “Deathstalker” and “Barbarian Queen,” “Krull,” “Sleepy Hollow,” some of the mythological works of Harryhausen, and the very recent David Lowery release “The Green Knight.” There’s mild satisfaction to be found in some of the destructive confrontations, but plenty of dawdling and bewildering returns to bizarre ceremonies foster a dullness that surely won’t align with mainstream audiences’ expectations for thrilling Viking exploits.

– The Massie Twins

  • 4/10