From: Silver Screen

REVIEW: ‘The Northman’ boldly challenges convention and viewers’ patience

REVIEW: ‘The Northman’ boldly challenges convention and viewers’ patience
4179_D029_00035_RC3 Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Robert Eggers has steadily cultivated a certain eminence in the minds of many fans and critics as a macabre directorial darling. The New Hampshire-born filmmaker’s singular folk horror sensibilities and unique relationship with the American mythos have made him a rising star of the recent A24-led resurgence in independent cinema. With “The Northman,” he takes a sharp left turn, trading in his uncanny New England roots for a big-budget Norse epic.

The film opens in 895 A.D. as King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his kingdom after a series of conquests. Upon arriving, he’s greeted by his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), son and heir, Amleth (Oscar Novak) and brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Jealous of Aurvandil’s crown and prestige, Fjölnir executes the king, forcefully seizing the throne and taking Gudrún as his wife. Meanwhile, Amleth flees by sea after narrowly escaping an attempt on his life by his uncle. The rest of the film follows an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he struggles to avenge his father’s death, save his mother and kill Fjölnir with the help of his lover, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Throughout “The Northman,” Eggers stretches his uncharacteristically large budget to produce an immersive, thoroughly developed world steeped in historically accurate Viking culture and an exhilarating array of physical and thematic textures. Daunting, expansive Icelandic landscapes accentuate the film's harsh outlook and the fates of its many characters. Expertly choreographed, incessantly brutal battle sequences provide an equally welcome kinetic thrust to a movie that occasionally veers into tedium. 

Eggers successfully walks a thin line by refusing to pull any punches in his grisly depictions of war while simultaneously averting the temptation to glorify armed conflict for its supposedly patriotic qualities, a pitfall that many pictures fall prey to. Haunting soundscapes further imbue the film with a genuinely eerie sense of anticipatory doom. All of these elements are thoughtfully intermingled to produce a movie that thrives within its big-budget capabilities rather than feeling mass-produced.

“The Northman’s” ensemble cast marks another diversion from typical Eggers fare, which often utilizes small groups of actors to amplify its intended intimacy. However, the extensive cast present in the director’s latest offering feels apt given the great increase in scope compared to films like “The Lighthouse.” Despite the cast's relative enormity, one would be hard-pressed to spot a weak role. “The Northman” is chock full of veteran powerhouses like Hawke, Kidman and Willem Dafoe. 

The most memorable performances are those of Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy. The couple’s steady, palpable chemistry brings a grounding presence to a world full of stakes and circumstances that are in constant flux, garnering a level of audience investment that would potentially be lacking otherwise.

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In contrast to the steady brilliance of “The Northman’s” numerous achievements, the film’s cinematography suffers from its inconsistency. That is not to say the movie is without its moments of photographic brilliance. Close-ups and visually affecting light work pair beautifully in a handful of haunting, ethereal sequences that document spiritual Norse ceremonies. The dynamic movement and engrossing long takes present in many of the physical struggles are equally arresting, seamlessly blending unflinching realism with carefully constructed cinematic flourishes. 

Other scenes, however, are rendered far less potent due to underexposure and a lack of dynamic coloring. In a film that leans so heavily into its atmospheric qualities, any disappointment in visual flair is greatly amplified.

Another frustrating area of mixed success lies in “The Northman’s” fixation on its weirdness. Many scenes featuring spiritual elements are dangerously close to exoticizing Norse culture for the sake of producing shock in the audience. Additionally, Eggers’ fixation on the abnormal tends to make his films feel a bit overwrought for the sake of disturbing rather than progressing the plot, an attribute likely to leave many viewers feeling more exhausted than engrossed. There are a variety of scenes where the director sacrifices cohesive storytelling for atmospheric diversions, a strategy that works well when used sparingly, but tends to feel exorbitant in a film nearly two and a half hours.

“The Northman” is likely to please Eggers devotees who have enjoyed the director’s career thus far, but moviegoers seeking a conventional historical epic will likely leave the theater perplexed. That being said, the film is saturated with gripping performances and features some of the most engaging battle scenes in recent memory. 

Though it skews toward being overlong and will likely disturb many viewers, one would be hard pressed to walk away from “The Northman” without being charmed by its many virtues and feeling that Eggers has one of the most beguiling, distinctive styles in contemporary American cinema.

“The Northman” will be released in theaters on April 22. 

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