Images in Review: Surrender to the new viking drama, The Northman

Tharini Prakash

Images is screening The Northman until May 5th. (Ava Burr/Williams Record)

Robert Eggers’ newest film based on Norse folklore is sure to satisfy fans of Viking dramas, cinematic gore, and Nicole Kidman. A revenge tale of enormous scale, The Northman packs its two-hour runtime with plenty of mud, potion-induced hallucinations, and fire — almost enough to distract viewers from its surprisingly simple plot. 

Set in 895 AD, a young Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) witnesses his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), get brutally executed by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) in a bid for his throne. Fjölnir and his men take control of the king’s village, killing civilians and kidnapping Prince Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth just barely manages to escape by boat, promising to himself to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.

The story sounds familiar because it is. Eggers’ screenplay is based on the medieval Scandanavian legend of Amleth, William Shakespeare’s inspiration for Hamlet and the many tales of the heir-seeking-revenge-for-his-father’s-murder genre. While the first third of the The Northman is faithful to the straightforward nature of such a story, the rest of the film maintains a sense of unpredictability and weirdness. This is in large part due to the great performances in the film, particularly Kidman’s. Although I consider myself a devout Kidman fan, I fully expected to cringe during the film at her Scandinavian accent (which isn’t typically her strong suit); instead, she stands out in this cast, fully committing to all the unsavory, selfish, and eccentric parts of her character.

After fleeing, Amleth is raised by a group of Vikings and takes part in pillaging other villages as he grows up. During their journey wreaking havoc on small Icelandic towns, Amleth encounters a prophetess (Björk) who predicts Amleth will successfully kill his uncle. It is one of the many supernatural elements in the film, which includes fiery visions and animalistic hallucinations, and often frays into strange but sensational territories. It is left ambiguous whether these supernatural encounters are real or just a product of Amleth’s unwavering imagination. Does Amleth’s quest have any real consequence and meaning, or is he dreaming up his own destiny? 

Once he receives this prophecy, his fate puts him back on his singular path of revenge. Amleth disguises himself as a slave in order to be sent to Fjölnir’s land and meets another slave on the boat, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-proclaimed sorceress whom he eventually marries.

The rest of the film makes little effort to romanticize Amleth’s endeavor — Eggers relishes in the grimness of the story’s time period, landscapes, and characters. Eggers is no stranger to bleak and brutal survivalist stories of the past, and fans of his previous works, which include The Witch and The Lighthouse, can expect similar themes and tone, just with a much larger budget.

At the same time, there are moments where this film feels somewhat silly. Whether that’s because the men in the story so often embody the meathead Viking stereotype, blindly following impulses to fight without reason, or because we know that Amleth’s pursuit is probably futile, I don’t know. The movie occasionally contains trite dialogue and certain monologues teeter on the line between melodramatic and corny. Despite these flaws, the film remains wholly entertaining, with Eggers and Skarsgard leaning into all of the extravagance and over-the-top spectacles and fight sequences you’d want out of an epic. 

At its heart, though, the movie’s meaning is serious, pondering questions of fate and purpose in the midst of violence and gore. Skarsgard and Taylor-Joy in particular provide enough heart to create intimacy in such a bleak story. The enormity of the visuals and indulgence in large setpieces offers grandeur that must be seen on a big screen. The score is especially memorable, commanding all of the pivotal moments in the film with eeriness and anguish.

Although my enjoyment of the film was slightly impeded by an ending that is largely predictable, with sweeping fantasy sequences and unnerving confrontations between various pairs of characters, there’s enough novelty in the movie to keep audience members intrigued. If you’re willing to surrender to all the absurdity and excess Eggers adds to the classic revenge and betrayal story, The Northman will reward you with amusement and surprise.

Images is screening The Northman until May 5th.