The Northman review: Robert Eggers delivers John Wick in a loincloth
This bloody Viking revenge drama is a feast for the eyes, but doesn’t push the envelope as far as you might hope.
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch and The Lighthouse comes with a certain level of expectation. Since it was first screened, critics have raved about The Northman as Eggers’ best and biggest film yet, marrying epic visuals with the filmmaker’s trademark offbeat diversions.
In some ways they’re right – The Northman looks incredible and features some challenging moments and top-notch performances from its cast. But the film also suffers slightly as director/co-writer Eggers steps up into more mainstream, accessible cinema, with Eggers’ trademark flights of imagination and horror sitting uneasily against the film’s more traditional revenge plot.
Said plot is, of course, familiar to anyone who’s seen Hamlet (or, more appropriately given Claes Bang’s shaggy mane of hair in this film, The Lion King). Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) flees his home when his father the King (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his brother (Bang), and his mother (Nicole Kidman) is captured and forced into marriage.
Years later, shaped into a killing machine by years of Viking raids, Amleth is ready to take his vengeance – with the help of some implied supernatural forces and Slavic slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Over the course of the film, we see Amleth gradually chip away at his uncle’s life, all leading to an epic clash where both men battle amidst the lava of a volcano. It’s bloody, pagan, bleak (thanks to the Icelandic setting) and vicious. I’ve never seen a film that quite looks like this – it’s a feast for the senses, and gently explores superstition, faith and loss in interesting ways. I particularly enjoyed its light-touch approach to superstition and deific intervention, which are left teasingly ambiguous right until the end.
It’s a shame that other parts of the film are less exploratory. This chapter from the Icelandic sagas has endured so many different adaptations and reinterpretations (including Shakespeare’s) for a reason – it’s an automatically engaging tale, easily understood. And while Eggers pushes the envelope technically and visually with the film, he doesn’t do much to update or advance this age-old plot, delivering story beats that are less profound or mysterious than you might have hoped for.
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Reportedly, early tests for the first cut of The Northman led to the studio demanding a more accessible edit, and I’d love to see what that first version of the film was like. This version feels like it has two identities – one a straight gritty period action movie (which is what it seems to be marketed as) and one that’s more recognisably Eggers, full of unsettling sequences and characters challenging the natural order.
The Lighthouse-like weirdness largely feels fenced off, contained in certain areas for Amleth to visit but not spend too long with. I wanted more of it! And it makes the finished film fall between two stools – too weird and unsettling for a mainstream audience, too straightforward and uninspired for Eggers’ usual fans. I’m not quite sure who this film is for, and I’m not sure that Universal does either.
Don’t get me wrong – this is still a great piece of filmmaking that’s heads and shoulders above whatever pictures it’ll rub shoulders with at the box office. It has a genuine aesthetic style, moments of real invention and a few moments that’ll make any cinema audience gasp or cry out (personally, I’m so glad that I saw this film with a big crowd thanks to one Nicole Kidman scene in particular).
But in the end, if you were expecting Robert Eggers to say something interesting or profound about vengeance or the toxic masculinity of warrior culture, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This is more like John Wick in a loincloth.
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