Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
We’ve seen great films about Ancient Egypt, Medieval England, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and many more, but we’ve yet to see a definitive live-action film about Vikings. Sure, there’s been plenty of films that depict this fascinating part of history, but none have become as culturally ubiquitous as the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956), Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000) or 300 (2006). The historical or mythological accuracy of these films may vary, but they all sparked audience interest in their respective time periods. While the television series Vikings (2013 – 2020) has made the need for a Scandinavian period epic unnecessary, there’s still plenty of history and myths to be mined for cinematic storytelling. Robert Eggers’ The Northman (2022) is probably the best shot we’ve yet to receive.
Based on the Scandinavian myth which inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), the Viking warrior Prince and son of King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). Following a spiritual ceremony intent on preparing the young Amleth for his eventual crown, King Aurvandill is murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who takes the throne in a violent uprising and holds Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as a hostage. Fjölnir also orders the murder of Amleth, but the young boy runs away and never returns, prompting the new regime to declare him dead. However, Amleth grows up as a member of a savage Viking tribe, honing his fighting skills and thirst for revenge. Now an adult man, Amleth has vowed to avenge his father, rescue his mother and murder Fjölnir.
There’s something which must be made abundantly clear right off the bat: The Northman isn’t a traditional historical epic, nor is Robert Eggers a traditional storyteller. While this is a more blockbuster sized film when compared to Eggers’ previous efforts The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), he hasn’t suddenly switched into a blockbuster mode of filmmaking. The Northman is packed with surreal imagery, hauntingly atmospheric tonal choices, deliberately expansive world building sequences, and nearly unintelligible dialogue exchanges. Granted, there is a narrative here, but instead of telling the story in a straightforward way, Eggers is making us feel and experience it like it’s a half remembered dream.
This may sound like The Northman is incomprehensible, but there is definitely a method to Eggers’ madness. Specifically, Eggers leans heavily into the thoughts and beliefs held by these Viking characters. Pretty much all period films do their best to depict the views and values of the time, but there’s always distance between the audience and what’s on screen. This means that when characters in films like Spartacus (1960), Gladiator (2000) or The Last Duel (2021) do things we would find barbaric or outdated, the audience is allowed to judge or comment on it with hindsight. With The Northman, Eggers has completely removed that level of separation, intending for us to physically experience the shocking traditions, social norms and belief systems of the Viking period. This is done without recontextualising it through a modern lens. Thus, religious imagery of Norse Gods, Norse myth and Norse rituals loudly inform the narrative and character motivations.
The Norse details drive the entire story forward, yet it’s barely explained for the uninitiated. This may make it difficult for those without Viking knowledge to plug into what’s happening. Powerful imagery (such as a Valkyrie riding warriors to the Norse afterlife Valhalla) will be totally lost on some, as will brutally visceral sequences like berserkers channeling their inner animal around a fire. The Northman rarely stops to provide context for what’s on screen, instead hoping the viewer has a basic understanding of Viking culture. Sadly this won’t be the case, meaning The Northman probably won’t connect with everyone. Ordinarily, this would result in an immediate non-recommendation, but the lack of context still makes sense given the film’s execution. If Eggers is trying to place us directly into the time period, it stands to reason that these characters would already know all the details and wouldn’t need anything explained to them.
As a nice counterbalance, the mix of myth, history, reality and surreality allows Eggers to play with many genres across this 137 minute epic. This is of course primarily an action film, but Eggers twists the rules and delivers horror, drama, romance, tragedy and psychological angles at a highly frequent rate. The fact that all of this neatly exists in one story is truly something to behold, and definitely proves that Eggers is becoming a master at his craft. Some viewers might latch onto certain aspects more than others, but the story itself does justify the changes in tone and approach. We may know where the story is ultimately heading, but there’s a few twists and turns which raise the stakes as well as our emotional investment. Particularly eagle-eyed viewers could spot these twists ahead of time, but that’s not a huge issue as it’s showing Eggers plays fair and isn’t just pulling reveals out of nowhere.
All of these pieces come together and make The Northman a horrifyingly brutal story. There’s definitely been far more violent period epics, but The Northman’s tone and presentation makes it feel particularly gruesome. Granted, the presentation justifies the violence and actually makes it part of the film’s bleakly brilliant direction and cinematography. Seeing a warrior catch a spear and throw it back (all in one shot) is an early jaw-dropping image that the rest of the film promises to beat, which it almost certainly does once we get to the absolutely volcanic climatic battle. The bursts of action are short and to the point, but they leave a very strong impression and are always tied to the film’s themes of fate, revenge and glory.
The Northman won’t be for everyone, which is to say that it’s a Robert Eggers film. Even with a $70-90 million budget, Eggers didn’t compromise on the vision, delivering a Viking epic which accomplished nearly all of its narrative, thematic and artistic goals. Will it eventually go down in history as the greatest Viking film of all time? Once we start getting more Viking films of it’s caliber, we can decide.
Best way to watch it: With some strong Ale.