Whimsical film stumbles a little

The Northman

(U.S., 2022)
Directed by Robert Eggers

Review by Iva Apostolova

The Northman’s director Robert Eggers, whose credits include The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), is reputed to be one of the most important directors of his generation. His directorial credits, while not numerous, clearly point to his high-art cinematic roots. Let’s just say that Robert Eggers is not Ron Howard.

I really wanted to love the movie and while I liked it for its whimsical, theatrical feel, I realized it left me wanting. Cinematic epic stories, especially ones involving battle scenes, are their own species. Where Ron Howard or Ridley Scott would have effortlessly risen to the occasion, I found Robert Eggers stumbled a bit. Battle scenes take a lot of choreography and involve complicated camera angles. The Northman’s on-the-ground, full-frontal, static type of camera is reminiscent of theatre mise-en-scènes, something that Eggers has experience with from his earlier directorial credits. The movie reminded me a lot of The Green Knight (2021) with its folktale-type of parlance and mystic visions. At one point I actually wondered if I had ended up, by mistake, at an Aronofsky movie.

I certainly appreciated the introduction of mysticism (through the main character, Amleth’s prophetic visions) into a story about a culture largely associated with raiding and colonizing. I only wish that these were not as many, especially because they were heavily CGIed, in stark contrast to the ultra-realism of the rest of the scenes. To add to that, the accented speech of the characters, in combination with the folk-type of expressions, made the delivery of the story a bit laboured.

I suspect The Northman was a product of Eggers’ fascination with Viking mythology and folklore (I mean, Viking history is beyond spellbinding, if the popularity of the two shows, available on Netflix, Vikings, and Vikings: Valhalla is anything to go by!). Unfortunately, as a result, he ended up with a movie that tried to do too much. It felt to me like a cross between The Witch, The Green Knight, and Hamlet (or Macbeth, if you will), each story more complicated than the next.

Otherwise, the scenery and the star power of The Northman are nothing to sneeze at. Most of the production takes place in Iceland, so the landscape is absolutely breathtaking, verging on otherworldly. Alexander Skaarsgard, who plays Amleth, is phenomenal; his body transformation alone is Oscar deserving. While Anya Taylor-Joy is somewhat typecast, worth mentioning are the nuanced performances delivered by Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, the Danish star Claes Kasper Bang as Amleth’s uncle, and last but not least, the rising Swedish star, Gustav Lindh as Amleth’s step-brother. Lindh’s ultimate on-screen vulnerability in the 2019 Queen of Hearts (original title Dronningen) can give even Thimothée Chalamet a run for his money!

Running time: 2h 16m
Rated 14A
Playing in theatres

Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.

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