Holy cow. That’s it, that’s the review. Okay, there’s more to say, but that’s the gist. We need more films like this.
Directed and co-written by Robert Eggers (THE WITCH, THE LIGHTHOUSE), THE NORTHMAN (2022) is an historical epic roughly based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which would go on to inspire Shakespeare to write HAMLET, one of his best known plays. In this story–the basics of which are spelled out neatly in the trailer–a young prince’s father is murdered, the usurper takes his mother as a wife, the prince positions himself for revenge, and then he fights to take it. Along the way, Amleth learns the truth of his childhood and discovers the potential of love after a life built on hatred.
This is a beautifully rendered film steeped in the violence of its era, but with just enough fantasy to make it feel mythic and just enough subversion and modern sensibility to make it relatable to a contemporary audience. Amleth’s life as a viking is hardly sanitized. The vikings made a living through slaughter and theft, and none of it is romanticized other than the rules of honor and familial obligation taught to a young man, which would define his life. The storytelling is plot driven, which is fine as it emphasizes its mythic nature and as the major characters are something of archetypes. The direction is downright artistic, from the gritty world building to the amazing score to the fantasy elements to the use of framing shots to establish the major characters as larger than life figures. The fantasy elements are familiar Norse tropes beautifully portrayed and incorporated in just the right measure, giving Amleth’s quest for vengeance a degree of fate to restore the natural order; in fact, more than anything, this is a story about fate. The actors, hot stars and crusty veterans alike, bring their A game as every one of them chews the scenery. The film clocks at two hours and sixteen minutes but never lags or wavers in its pacing, consistently holding my interest with every scene advancing the plot.
It wasn’t all perfect, as films rarely are. The accents aren’t always convincing, and I wasn’t sure about the casting of Amleth as a young man. I sometimes had difficulty understanding the actors when they growled or whispered lines.
These are honestly quibbles, though. Overall, I loved THE NORTHMAN and recommend it for those okay with violent films. I hope it influences Hollywood to make historical action movies that incorporate but aren’t dominated by a modern sensibility, and make movies that put such an equal strong emphasis on pushing every aspect of production to the limit. It certainly catapulted Eggers from being good to a must-watch director for me.