Robert Eggers’ third feature indulges in threadbare storytelling, where the bliss of The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) never emerges. While the protagonist constitutes a definite weak spot, the rest of The Northman (2022) doesn’t stand on its own either.
When The Northman (2022) was announced – a star-studded Nordic revenge tale – director Robert Eggers seemed to be fixed on scoring a masterpiece hat-trick. After debuting a cabalistic story about one nasty devil shape-shifted in a black goat, and devising an oneiric horror about two men losing their grip in a remote lighthouse, the expectations for Eggers’ third feature flew somewhere around the cinematic equivalent of Himalayas.
Early on, the visual bonanza gushes as Eggers vividly captures the harsh life of the North. Immersed heavily in shades of faded green, grey, and blue, The Northman (2022) surely looks the part right from the kick-off. Viewers acquainted with Vikings (2013-2020) will immediately spot similarities – including the unnecessary accents that fail to help us immerse more. Nevertheless, the dim lighting, the cold wooden architecture, and animal fur covering the backs of formidable Vikings all check out.
Perhaps both of the previous features helmed by Robert Eggers suffered from an insufficient amount of story meat, and both covered the underdeveloped plots with stunning visuals and rich symbolism. If that was the case, then The Northman (2022) shows proportionally fewer ideas to surprise and awe than its predecessors. The story follows your average Viking brute named Amleth (Aleksander Skarsgård), who – for unknown reasons – seemed alluring enough to land his own film.
What is The Northman (2022) about?
Amleth is the son of King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), a valued ruler who comes back home after a victorious venture into the uncharted lands. Upon the raiding party’s return from the voyage, the moods between King Aurvendil and his devil-may-care brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) aren’t well. Wounded and left to ponder his future, Aurvendil suspects a swift demise – a premonition coming true when Fjolnir kills the king in cold blood. Fortunately for Amleth,Fjölnir’s grunts aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed, so the heir to the throne flees.
Eggers moves a decade or so into the future. Prince Amleth, now a grown, muscular warrior, plots his retribution. Alas,Fjölnir squandered the kingdom’s prosperity and now moved to Iceland with Aurvendil’s wife Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), he’s still the prevailing reason for Amleth’s existence.
Henceforth begins an arduous descent into the world of looting, raping, killing, and screaming. Eggers conjures up images of brutality that might be nauseating for sensitive viewers, although nothing we haven’t seen already. A particularly discomforting sequence takes place in Rus (today’s Ukraine), where Vikings slaughter an entire village. Perhaps the ongoing war distorts that particular moment, but watching innocent men killed for no reason in the same geographical multitude where it happens now creates a brooding parallel that nobody needs.
The Northman (2022) bathes in the blood spilled by the savage
Nevertheless, the goal of showing this no-holds-barred savagery is to portray the tour-de-force of Amleth. Sadly, AleksanderSkarsgård’s unquestionable dedication to the role – mostly seen in its physical form – doesn’t make him a protagonist worth attention. Like in most of his roles,Skarsgård remains scarcely impressionable, and even when the Vikings are smeared in blood, mud, and sweat, howling like primal animals and flexing the tiniest muscles in front of the camera, the whole show seems ridiculously self-serious.
That’s an unexpected obstacle for the director, who has proven the capacity to cast and shape stunning performances. Eggers often gives free rein to his actors, allowing them to reach the depths of their darkest abyss. Amleth lacks that depth. Neither the sculpted-in-ice heart of his nor the rigid circumstances of his upbringing explain the boredom that surroundsSkarsgård. One only wishes for a protagonist of the caliber of Ragnar Lothbrok played unforgettably by Travis Fimmel, or – closer to the spirit of The Northman (2022) – Mads Mikkelsen’s turn as One Eye in Valhalla Rising (2009).
The supporting cast struggles too. An awfully-written plot twist that turns the character of Nicole Kidman upside down, deserves no more than a sigh. Overall, Kidman’s turn as King Aurvendil’s muse, kidnapped and forced into marriage withFjölnir, adds little excitement to the ensemble, and Claes Bang asFjölnir might be the only redeeming part of the cast.
Oh, did I forget that Anya Taylor-Joy also starred in The Northman (2022)? Well, my bad.
Eggers’ Viking tale brings nothing new to the table
Alas, many aspects don’t work well in the film, my most serious apprehension concerning The Northman (2022) is how unimaginative the whole creation feels. Even in the sub-sub-genre of films and shows about the old nordic stories, this is average at best.
As if the director couldn’t decide about the final shape of this film, The Northman (2022) bounces back and forth between half-baked surrealism and crude naturalism, and that stark contrast lacks a gluing agent in between. In one scene, Eggers introduces a Valkyrie – a key promotional image – and a Seer (Bjork’s participation in the film). While their appearances are justified, they are nonetheless quite out of the blue too.
Again, it calls for a shoutout to The Lighthouse (2019), where the use of Greek mythology was a superb touch to the already-rich canvas of the film’s symbolism.
At some point, the stylish and meticulously-designed cinematography evokes a slight ennui too. Eggers’ fixation on symmetrical frames with flames from bonfires placed in the middle becomes a bore – even though the use of such framing is understandable considering the architecture of the nordic houses. Then, some of the shots deceptively resemble the work of Adam Arkapaw in Macbeth (2015).
Each of these tiny malfunctions could be countered and forgiven if only The Northman (2022) marveled as a piece of auteur filmmaking. Unfortunately, this is Robert Eggers triumphantly entering Hollywood, which means less of the stuff indie film fans embraced him for.
So, is The Northman (2022) a bad film?
Robert Eggers will, most likely, never make a bad film, because he nails the technical part of filmmaking. The degree of details, the scenic views, and costume designs are admirable.
Despite all that, The Northman (2022) suffers from an uninventive craft-making designed to appeal to audiences that hoped for a simplistic, brutal film with Nordic themes. If that’s what you’re after, then this is your jam.