Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke,
The practice of film criticism can present a number of interesting challenges, and one of the most prevalent is often the struggle that emerges between the head and the heart. Your brain knows that you are watching a technically excellent film with a solid narrative structure that carries you through from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the pesky heart is left hollow and wishing for an emotional connection that would bring the entire experience over the top. The best movies are basically miracles because somehow they manage to soar on both levels. Most movies tend to fall into the middle ground where they satisfy either the head or the heart alone.
Robert Eggers’ much anticipated new film The Northman is a head movie. It has a great cast, wonderful cinematography, and truly looks expensive; you can absolutely see the robust $90 million budget up there on the screen. In many ways it is more or less exactly the Viking revenge epic you would expect Robert Eggers to make: heavy on symbolism and fantastical elements, actors trying their best with sparse and strange dialogue, but also full of brutal violence and action. It is without a doubt Eggers’ largest and most ambitious film to date, and it is certainly not a boring film. But since seeing it a few days ago, I have barely thought about it again at all and for me this ultimately comes down to an effort that is surgically precise in its technical aspects but lacking in emotionality.
If the Viking tale The Northman is based on sounds familiar, that’s because it is also known to be Shakespeare’s inspiration for writing the classic play Hamlet. As the film opens, it is the year 895 and King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home from battle to reunite with his wife Queen Gudrün (Nicole Kidman) and son Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak). Soon after a bizarre mystical ceremony where Amleth accepts his position as future king and vows to avenge his father if need be, the prophecy becomes very real as Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and his men arrive. They betray King Aurvandil by murdering him, kidnapping the queen, and attempting to kill young Amleth before he manages to escape by boat, vowing his vengeance.
Several years later, we once again meet Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who has now part of a brutal group of Vikings pillaging villages with evil murder and torture of their inhabitants. Amleth is essentially a blank slate as an adult character. He howls like a wolf and grunts and does his Viking duties without any indication to the audience how he feels about the group of villagers he just saw burned alive by his fellow Vikings. It’s a tough ask for an audience to sympathize with this man in his adult state, but that’s what we get.
Not that the movie doesn’t attempt to soften Amleth as we follow his quest; soon he will be involved in an improbable romance. He conjures a vision of a Seeress (an effective small role for Björk who reminds us that she actually was a strong actress) who sees his vengeance against Fjölnir as a very likely scenario. He sneaks his way onto a slave ship on its way to Iceland. Here he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) a beautiful fellow slave who claims to possess magical powers. The relationship and eventual love story between Amleth and Olga provides the weakest element of the film. They have such quick and stunted interactions that it just all feels forced. Ultimately it feels like Olga’s story is only existent to provide stakes to Amleth’s storyline at the end of the film and create tension.
In one of the most interesting developments of the film, Fjölnir, Gudrün, and their son now live in a small Icelandic village telegraphing that his coup for the throne did not actually work and the family was exiled. It is a very interesting portrayal of royals who have been shamed, embarrassed, and just have a small piece of land to call their own. Despite all of this, they retain their regal quality and still wield the small amount of power they have been able to hold onto. The slaves are all taken to Fjölnir’s small village where they begin a life of hard labor while Amleth secretly waits for the proper time to reveal his identity to his mother and exact revenge against his traitorous uncle.
The performances are strong across the board in The Northman with the standouts being the mega-ripped Skarsgård as Amleth and understatedly evil Claes Bang as Fjölnir. They are both instantly believable in their roles and really give some extra weight to roles that could have been just stereotypical Viking movie stuff that we’ve seen before. Kidman feels wasted for large stretches of the film but takes flight with some meatier material later in the story. Despite anchoring the weakest storyline in the movie, Taylor-Joy always remains an intensely focused actress who is extremely watchable on screen.
While the acting is fine, there are moments in the screenplay by Eggers and Sjón where the dialogue is just bizarrely hokey or strange. The actors try their best, but I can’t imagine it would be easy for any performer to say the line “Fjölnir is fortunate that a woman’s tide is the only blood that flowed inside his house tonight” with a straight face. When you have a character who is such a blank slate like Amleth say a line like this, which is nearly a joke, it seems bizarrely out of character and just took me out of the story.
I don’t know, I hope I don’t sound too down on the movie. It’s a technical marvel that is extremely well-made and manages to remain engaging and entertaining throughout its 136-minute running time. But I think to be considered on a level of classic modern vengeance stories like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), you have to have the strong emotional connection like the audience has with Russell Crowe’s character in that film. Here, while well-performed by Skarsgård, Amleth is just sort of a blank slate. So while I praise the movie for its excellence, I can’t ignore that I did not get as emotionally wrapped up in the story or the characters as expected. The head was satisfied, but the heart was left wanting.