The third feature film of writer-director Robert Eggers isn’t a horror film much like The Witch or The Lighthouse were, but the way in which Eggers brings you into his worlds whether it be through the usage of old age English or the elaborate sets – when considering the historical settings of his films, is nothing short of impressive. It was easy enough to see that from The Lighthouse onward, Eggers certainly would have found himself growing to become more ambitious as a filmmaker and it’s perhaps best reflected by what you’re seeing in The Northman, which may just as well be his most visually stunning film to date. Yet to Eggers, it’s not simply about mere aesthetic, it’s all about transporting the audience back through time, which I believe he succeeds at beautifully in here.
Based on the legend of Amleth, The Northman stars Alexander Skarsgård as the tragic Scandinavian Viking prince, as he seeks to avenge the murder of his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). Since this story takes its inspiration from the same source upon which William Shakespeare’s Hamlet had derived from, it’d be easy enough to expect that Eggers’s new epic would remind many people of the beloved play, although there’s more than enough presented by Eggers in here to make you feel every bit of the ugliness at play on this quest for revenge. Yet even then, Eggers knows that this tale of vengeance on the film’s exterior works to create something more tragic, as it moves away from that traditional revenge narrative.
With how much attention to detail Eggers is placing in Amleth’s own world, from his own childhood to the crucial point where he seeks to avenge his father, there’s a lot to be admired about how Eggers allows the spectacle to speak to a huge part of Amleth’s own psychology. As a child, we got a chance to see exactly what his father expected of him, but at a young age it was also the point where he had grown up into a damaged man, after having gone through the pain of seeing his father killed in front of his own eyes by his uncle. Eggers is one to indulge his viewers into the spectacle of the past, whether it be through beautiful set pieces or his conscious choice to use old age English rather than modern English, but he’s also never one to compromise his vision – as it shines thoroughly from start to end in The Northman.
None of this is limited to that, for Eggers seeks to keep the affair afloat by keeping the whole ride so visually appealing. Many moments appear with a distinct desaturation but with considering the tone of the film at hand it only ever looks incredibly beautiful, even in moments where it gets incredibly bloody and gory – for Eggers doesn’t want to let his vision of an untamed Iceland to go without compromise. To say that a film like this has found itself a unique ride among most films coming out now would be an understatement, especially as the talks of box office glory are what sway the audiences of now, but there’s still something beautiful about how much Eggers is letting himself get swept away by his own spectacle; it’s entirely ugly, bloody, but it never leaves your head so easily. It also helps that Jarin Blaschke’s imagery, having remained Eggers’s cinematographer since The Witch, is as beautiful as it’d ever been – maybe some of the very most you’ll ever see out of him at that.
I think that there’s still a whole lot of credit owing to Alexander Skarsgård, whose transformation from the very first moment we see him all the way to the end is absolutely stunning. For this isn’t Hamlet as you remembered him, but the legend that inspired him now reimagined as a monster whose quest for vengeance has stuck with him through all his life, and ultimately became what kept him moving all throughout life. Even in moments where we see he’s found a love for himself through Anya Taylor-Joy, it still takes a distinct priority in his mind, but like Hamlet, we see him as a tragic figure, not because of what he had turned himself into, but because of the circumstances of his own upbringing into the world, only resulting in kingdoms falling apart, one after another.
You’d be harder pressed to find another film that feels every bit as uncompromised as The Northman does, for every moment of its visual splendour only goes to add up to how tragic this story feels. It’s an entirely breathtaking affair from arguably one of this generation’s most fascinating American auteurs. Though not a horror film in the same way that The Witch and The Lighthouse were, The Northman doesn’t quite let back on those past influences – especially when you’re coming to consider how monstrous the nature of revenge can really be, for one person. Amleth is a tragic figure, perhaps not the same sort of person that William Shakespeare had created into his own version through Hamlet, but that’s also what makes The Northman so thoroughly compelling, in all of its epic glory.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Screenplay by Robert Eggers, Sjón, based on the legend of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus
Produced by Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Arnon Milchan
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Running Time: 137 minutes