Director Robert Eggers has a unique style to say the least; dark period pieces with complex characters that embrace darker urges often involving brutal and long takes. In spite of having only directed two prior films (The Witch and The Lighthouse), Eggers’ third outing, The Northman has cemented his status as the epic filmmaker of his generation.
The Northman, based on the legend of Amleth which in turn inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tells the story of a young Nordic prince who witnesses the brutal murder of his father, King Aurvandil, at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir at which Amleth swears revenge along with vowing to save his mother and reclaim his kingdom from the usurper.
Amleth, played by Alexander Skarsgård, bulked up heavily from his childhood into adulthood as Skarsgård fully inhabits the role of a Viking berserker as he pillages settlements, slaughters enemies and yet he refrains from some of the more brutal aspects of his berserker group. He is shown abstaining from the assault of conquered women or burning huts with the villagers still inside. It is very much in the trope of the noble warrior who is just a warrior and not a monster.
When Amleth is reminded of his childhood vow by a seeress, he abandons his berserker clan to track down Fjölnir and join his land as a slave while he bides his time to strike down his uncle. It is during this journey that he connects with a young woman named Olga who has previously a victim of his conquest. Her first introduction is by pulling a hidden knife to save the life of a child who is presumedly being inducted into the berserker clan. Olga then offers her assistance in destroying Fjölnir as she has grown tired of slavery persisting in her land.
Amleth is then confronted by the seemingly happy appearance of his mother, Gudrún, who has since had a young son with Fjölnir. While Amleth is resolute in saving his mother, she reveals during this rescue attempt that she had originally conspired with his uncle to murder Amleth’s father as well as himself. In addition to this betrayal, she reveals that Aurvandil had raped her while she was enslaved to him and the assault resulted in her being pregnant with Amleth. It is a startling revelation to the deposed prince who then questions his entire revenge quest.
This brief obstacle does not deter Amleth who winds up being captured by Fjölnir but escapes thanks to some supernatural help from his deceased father as well as Olga but he returns to fulfill his vow. This land is full of mysticism and lore as there are numerous prayers to the All Father and lamentations from Olga to protect her and Amleth during their journey. While Amleth recovers and contemplates fleeing with Olga, he receives a vision that she is pregnant with twins and that they will never be safe while Fjölnir continues to live and that he will not stop until Amleth and his family are dead.
Amleth returns to exact once again to Fjölnir’s settlement to exact bloody revenge and winds up granting a swift death to his mother and half-brother as Fjölnir enters to declare that they will battle at the base of an active volcano. In what is the most thrilling scene in the entire film, nephew and uncle settle their grievance in the old way; with only sword and but no armor. It is a brutal fight to death and while Amleth and Fjölnir trade blows, Amleth winds up victorious as he beheads his uncle and fulfills his promise but he is fatally wounded and is carried into Valhalla having proved his vision and avenging his father.
The Northman is a sprawling epic on par with films like Gladiator or Spartacus as it is brutal and uncompromising look at this era of history while also not glorifying the violence and brutality that is also typical of the era. This period of time allows for a suspension of disbelief that is required for the level of mysticism and fantasy shown in the film. Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy enjoy a great chemistry while Skarsgård looks incredibly intimidating as a muscle-bound berserker out for blood. Every technical aspect of the film is on point even down to the grass roofs of the settlements. The Northman is a worthy inclusion in the revenge genre and sets the bar high for the continuing career of director Robert Eggers.
VERDICT: 5 plundered familial coins out of 5