Perversely given a wide cinema release earlier this year, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is a grim and spectacularly obtuse viking thriller. The masses failed to connect with it, which given Eggers’ atmospheric style and deep cultural immersion is not a surprise. For the much narrower audience tuned in to its eccentricities, this is one of the best films of 2022 so far.
In 9th century Scandinavia, young Prince Amleth is orphaned when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and kidnaps his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Years later, an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) returns to seek his vengeance.
That is not deja vu you are sensing: the story of an uncle murdering the father and marrying the mother is best known by audiences in the last few centuries from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare did not invent the story, however, but lifted it from the Danish legend Amleth as written by medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus. Eggers’ new take on the legend was co-written by Icelandic writer, poet, and musician Sjón, and packs a meaner and more muscular power that Shakespeare’s indecisive protagonist ever did.
As with his 2015 debut The Witch, Robert Eggers demonstrate a real flair for getting inside the headspace of a foreign culture. Whether it is historically accurate or not I will leave the historians, but in The Northman he presents a world of strongly held spiritual beliefs and intricately observed rituals. There is an enhanced reality to Eggers’ films, where there is no real difference between the natural and the supernatural: both are effectively shared elements of one haunting and strange reality. It is through this technique that The Northman becomes quite a divisive picture. Viewers are either going to make the leap into this unusual, oftentimes bizarre environment, or they are not. It is paired with some stunning visuals, which shift scene by scene from a naturalistic world to an artificially heightened one.
The film benefits from a particularly strong cast, focused primarily on Skarsgård but ably supported by the likes of Hawke, Bang, and Anya Taylor-Joy. Willem Dafoe and Björk both make deeply impactful appearances that enhance their particular scenes immeasurably. Of the entire ensemble it is surprisingly Nicole Kidman that makes the strongest impact; Gudrún expands over the course of the film from passive damsel-in-distress to something much more developed and interesting. She expresses it all marvellously.
Ultimately the question over whether The Northman is worth seeing is down to taste rather than quality. Eggers has made an exceptional film. It is simply down to whether or not each individual viewer wants to join him on this strange, ethereal journey.