By Sam Maguire
Robert Eggers’ The Northman is his third film following the VVitch and The Lighthouse, both having scored notable commercial and critical success, marking Eggers as a director of real ability and some renown.
While both his earlier features – on the surface at least – travel through very different plots, places and people, there remains a distinctive commonality. This is made up of thematic consistencies across nihilism, human helplessness in face of inexplicable, incomprehensible forces, and a cruel disposition towards suspicion of your fellow man.
More superficial elements can be easily seen in gothic architectures, pagan rituals, elaborate superstitions and purportedly time and place accurate dialogue, something Eggers is said to take very seriously indeed.
It is no surprise therefore to see these themes present in The Northman, a 2 and a half hour film, following Amleth played by a horribly hulking Alexander Skarsgard, neck tendons and eye balls always under strain in a mad frenzy. Based off the original text which inspired Shakespeare, our titular character is compelled to seek the revenge towards his uncle, the murdered Fjolnir, who ingloriously cuts down his father, going on to claim the kingship and Skarsgard’s mother (played in excellent form by Nicole Kidman).
The mantra of “I will avenge you, father, I will save you, mother, and I will kill you Fjolnir” panted by an escaping Amleth, is enough to understand the film’s pivot, as via a flash forward of 20 years, we return to Amleth who contrives to place himself within enslavement of Fjolnir in bid to strike and obtain his revenge at the suitable moment.
This stretched over the film’s 150 minute run time amidst the familiar Eggers cinematic staples is where the film lives and dies. Situated in 895AD, first in Ireland, then “Rus” considered to be in Eastern Europe between the Baltics and Black Sea) and then in Iceland, Eggers mobilises the paganistic Viking aesthetic to grant the film, his visceral, creepy, tactile character.
The relish in which the film captures convoluted rituals in fire lit caves and open fields where bare chested men devolve into animalistic forms is palpable. Such scenes shot lovingly in violent orange lights suggest a certain mysticism blurring the lines between the physical form and the warrior Valhalla men like Amleth most keenly believe in.
This in compliment with the highly visceral, frequent violence, delivered with a real sense of physical heft behind it grants The Northman a dual edged appeal. One rooted in an ethereal world where the bridge to Valhalla is already there, and another that proclaims the stern laws of nature, namely that, your time on Earth is likely to be short, cruel and painful.
That juxtaposition is perfectly fine, and might work very well in a robust film with a lean 90 minute duration. Here however, in a film with epic scale aspiration there is not enough to feed the overgrown narrative, resulting in the inconsistent pacing, most notably felt in the middle hump.
What you get then is a film that certainly feels like an Eggers film, with it’s aesthetic and sense of artistic conviction, and there absolutely are moments of real cinema. One particular moment is the striking image of a horse rider galloping through the sky into a shimmering Valhalla, another would be a silhouetted confrontation amidst an active volcano.
The backbone of The Northman however struggles to rise above average, the pacing suffers from the seriousness of the film’s ideas, moving ponderously, trying to sustain a meditative sense of profound meaning and wisdom. But seriousness does not equal intellectual depth, there is only so much you can stretch out the plot of this film.
Much of the complimenting pieces are there, in addition to the attention lavished upon the film’s look and texture, the film enjoys a coterie of established and capable actors. Alexander Skarsgard may never be Robert De Niro, but by virtue of his sheer bulk and natural stoic intensity he does not need to be. Instead he benefits from the steady assurance of more natural performers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke.
Characters populate and characterise a world that certainly feels lived in and substantial.
The film’s score is of a similar character, never rising to be exceptional, still has all the mechanical clangs, rumbles, growls and snarls you look for in such a broody, mopey film.
The Northman has enough going for it to be worthy of a single viewing, the thematic message around corruptive and eventually hollow revenge is grasped within the first act, and while there remains a jagged intensity enough to carry things through, The Northman only threatens and splutters to do something more.