Mythic film-making: A review of ‘The Northman’

Published May 17, 2022, 7:24 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Alexander Skarsgärd and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘The Northman’

With the two films of The Witch and The Lighthouse under his belt, Director/screenwriter Robert Eggers has already carved out an enviable name for himself. Blending historical authenticity with folkloric elements, his early career as a set designer for theatre productions, have all added up to his films carrying a very distinct visual and story-telling ‘signature’. His films often take on the feel of staged productions, transcending the film medium in which we view them.

Having shelved the Nosferatu project that is now being announced as his fourth film project, we have his take on Norse mythology, The Northman – an existential take on Viking-lore and myth-making. It’s a film that allows Eggers to put scale and breadth in his film, something that both The Witch and The Lighthouse did not require. That he achieves this expansive scale without losing touch of his signature style is quite stunning to watch.

From the opening scene, a volcano in a Scandinavian setting, it’s impressed upon us that there are scale and purpose here. It’s like we’re being invited to the grittier, earthbound version of Thor, Odin and Valhalla. And then we’re whisked to the world of rulers and feudal kings that lorded it during this Viking era. As I mentioned, there’s a very stage-y aspect to this and you can sense that Eggers is doing this with full intent. It’s almost Shakespearean in execution, like shades of Hamlet and MacBeth (and Lion King themes) have shifted location, and have found a niche in Norse history.

It’s the legend of Amleth, a Viking prince, who sets on a quest to avenge the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle. Alexander Skarsgärd plays Amleth, and the film boasts of a stellar cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, and Björk. And it’s Skargärd as a co-producer who gives his all in his portrayal, while the others on the cast show similar commitment to the film’s authenticity – such that one can almost feel the stench, grime, and bitter cold that are all constants in the film.

Primal, visceral, bloody, tragic, and action-packed; there’s much to admire in how Eggers attacks the material at hand. It’s visually stunning, but never to the point of distraction to the story-telling. And it’s how he mixes the other-worldly and fantastical with the mundane and historical that allows us to marvel at what he’s conjured up.

In fact, I’m really wishing that a film distributor would take this film and give it a theatrical run, as watching this on a streaming platform is like putting a full grown shark in a fishbowl. The film is aching to be watched on a big screen, where scope and size can matter, and where watching with an audience will allow reaction of a communal nature to be shared in.

If I had to level criticism on the film, it would be how the bravura visual style can outpace the story that lies at the root of the legend – as we have seen this vengeance story in other iterations. Still, it’s good to note that Eggers knows how to create in a ‘big’ film, without losing the elements that made him such a critics’ darling.