Based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, and directed by Robert Eggers, Northman is a historical action-drama which is currently playing in UK cinemas (and in US cinemas from Friday April 22nd). The film, which stars Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawk, Willem Dafoe, and Björk, tells the story of a prince who vows revenge against his uncle, over the death of his father.
The movie begins in the year 895, with King Aurvandill War-Raven returning home from a conquest abroad. Here he is greeted by his wife, Queen Gudrún, and his son, Prince Amleth.
Although this is a joyful occasion, King Aurvandill has returned home injured, so he decides now is the time to begin transferring his royal responsibilities to his son. However, the King’s brother, Fjölnir, has his eye on the crown too, and the next morning Fjölnir executes Aurvandill and seizes the throne.
Witnessing his uncle’s ascension, but being unable to do anything about it, Amleth makes his escape, but vows that one day he will avenge his father, rescue his mother, and murder his uncle. Years later, an adult Amleth makes his way back to his uncle, to fulfil his promise.
If you’re familiar with director Robert Eggers, then it is likely you have watched one of his previous movies, either 2015’s The Witch, or 2019’s The Lighthouse. Whichever one it is (and perhaps it is both), then you will know that Eggers is very much a visual and imaginative storyteller, who brings a bold aesthetic to the screen, while telling a mind-bending story to boot.
But although Eggers is becoming well-known for his unusual pictures, his movies can be somewhat divisive amongst mainstream audiences. Some love his work, while others do not.
However, so far, his two previous films have been critical hits. Each have earned industry praise and have also bagged themselves plenty of accolades too.
After viewing this latest entry in his portfolio, I expect The Northman to follow the same path forged by his earlier films. Some audiences will love it, some really won’t, and plenty in the industry will heap praise on various technical aspects of the picture.
As far as I’m concerned, The Northman is actually a combination of all of the above. Some of the film is great, some is not, but my highest praise is aimed squarely at the overall look and feel of the movie.
I liked parts of the film, but it isn’t a knock-out picture. The good balances out the not-so good, and the overall experience is fine, but it doesn’t hit the lofty heights I had hoped for.
The Northman works best when Eggers is delivering the grim and gritty elements of his world. It is here where this film truly shines, and for the most part I can’t knock the visual side of this movie.
But where the movie falters is in the pacing, the runtime, and the general sense that there is just not enough story to keep things interesting. The director attempts to create an epic movie, and while there are shades of this in the film, especially with its 137-minute runtime, it mostly feels like an epic in name and idea alone, rather than in what is delivered.
I can certainly see what the director was aiming for, but as far I’m concerned, there’s not enough material in the movie to get it to where it is trying to go. The film never pushes itself beyond its pretty straight-forward premise, and this becomes its biggest sticking point.
As with all Robert Eggers movies, it should be said that there are a number of bonkers moments in this picture, and for The Northman some of these appear early on. The first ten minutes includes some barking, some farting, a scene with Willem Dafoe in his pants, and some very questionable accents too.
In fact, one of the first lines in the movie is spoken by Nicole Kidman attempting an ill-advised Scandinavian lilt, which is beyond laughable. To be fair to Kidman, most of the accents in this movie range from passable to dreadful, but she really does set the standard at the beginning of the film and it’s hard to ignore.
And it is here, at the very beginning of the film, where I believe The Northman will lose some of its audience. Those not accustomed to Eggers’ work may wonder what the heck is going on, why Ethan Hawk is acting like a dog, and what movie they paid to watch?
I must admit, for a brief second, I did find myself asking the question: Is Eggers so confident in his ability that he can put anything on screen, or is he just playing an elaborate spoof on his financial backers? I do wonder if he is now just chucking any old shit at the screen to see if people will go along with it, and I don’t really know what the answers to this is.
But because I am familiar with his work, I knew that things would calm down a bit and the movie would slip into a more comfortable groove – which it does. But I do believe some people will mentally switch off within the first few minutes and might not ever fully switch back on again.
I didn’t mentally switch off at any point during the course of the movie, but I can’t say I ever felt fully engaged or engrossed either. I was happy to follow the story, and I certainly found myself being pulled in at times, but there were moments when I was not so interested and could have easily walked away.
It all runs little too long for my tastes, and the story could have wrapped itself up much sooner than it did. Towards the end of the film, it was fairly clear where it was all going, and yet it seemed to take forever to get there.
What does keep the movie interesting is lead actor Alexander Skarsgård. He throws himself into the role of the adult Amleth, doesn’t hold back, and his performance is one which really works for the movie.
The ever-reliable Anya Taylor-Joy is also good in the film, and all the other key players do what they need to do to get from A to B. Everyone in the ensemble is committed, and even if some struggle with their accents, it’s fair to say they give it their all and are on board throughout.
But the film’s real strength lies in the world that has been created for The Northman, rather than its cast. The picture looks great, feels very real, and it is here where the movie makes its biggest strides towards epic status.
However, to reiterate what I said previously, I don’t believe this movie is the epic it wants to be. It needs a little more oomph to get it over the line, as well as a bit more depth, and a little more scope and scale.
I liked some of The Northman and feel it is OK, but I wasn’t bowled over by it. I don’t believe the movie is as interesting as The Witch, it’s not as quirky or as mesmerising as The Lighthouse, and generally speaking, it’s not as enjoyable as the trailer and promotional material suggests it might be.
In terms of Eggers’ catalogue of pictures, I don’t expect I’ll return to this one – it feels like a ‘one-and-done’ kind of thing. I’m sure many people will disagree, and it’ll become a firm favourite for plenty of cinemagoers, which is fine, but that’s not where I’m at.
Good in places, great at times, but overall neither here nor there, The Northman is OK. Not outstanding, but for a ‘one-time-watch’ it does what it needs to do.
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