Robert Egger’s latest is another unique and immersive feature
Robert Eggers is quickly becoming one of the most unique and fascinating new directors to follow. His films are placed in settings that are little explored in current cinema, 17th century colonial New England, an early 20th century lighthouse, or his latest in 9th century Viking Europe.
The Northman (2022) is a loose adaptation of the 13th century legend of Amleth, who’s famous for being a central inspiration for William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Just as many viewers are familiar with the Shakespearean heroe’s arc, The Northman follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) a man exiled from his kingdom after his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murdered and usurped his father Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and took his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) as his wife. Amleth vowed revenge and, thus, embarks on a journey home with ally Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Eggers is an incredibly meticulous director, with every aspect of his films carefully researched and conducted. You won’t find a blade of grass out of place in any of his films and The Northman is no different. His mastery of tone is spooky, as with his previous two films The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), there is a clear allusion to darkness with sprinkled absurdity. Eggers does not have an optimistic view of the world in his films, uncovering an unforgiving and cruel world where breaks of empathy feel like a forbidden fruit. The Viking setting certainly feeds into this perspective, with some brutal scenes of pillaging and slaughter taking place in the first half of the film. This sets up the cruel world that Amleth inhabits and informs viewers that they are bound for an uncomfortable and immersive ride.
Eggers has shown a keen ability to adapt his stories to their respective time periods, from the careful scripting of verbal vernacular to the historical research undergone to properly portray customs. The Northman is the biggest challenge that Eggers has undergone yet in this sense, and it is perhaps where he begins to encounter some challenges, specifically in the dictation direction of his actors. The unnecessary added “foreign” accents that many of the actors employ along with the growling and whispering tones that they speak through, made the understanding of the dialogue quite the challenge. This wasn’t detrimental to your understanding of the basic elements of a scene or the plot, but it did rob the film of narrative details that Eggers, no doubt, spent much time perfecting. Sometimes characters would switch into speaking in a Nordic language and back to accented English, which felt even more confused as to what Eggers was trying to communicate with these choices.
As with any Robert Eggers film, the visual aesthetic is breathtaking. Using beautiful wide shots as well as immersive tracking shots (one specific Viking raid scene will remind some viewers of the bandit skirmish at the beginning of Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015)), Eggers relishes playing with Norse mythology and landscape.
Unlike many other films, where performers have an elevated role compared to the other cogs of a production, the performers in Eggers’ films feel just as meticulously crafted and controlled by him as another brushstroke by a painter. As such, no one actor shines above the rest, at the same time as none fade into the background. Each scene and interaction is carefully edited and directed to make sure that the focus never shifts away from the story.
Towards the end of The Northman, I saw hints of Eggers playing with the classic revenge-tale formula, however, I was slightly disappointed when he played into expectations. Not even a question into the morality of a quest for revenge is brought up as I had hoped (albeit this doesn’t tend to go well with fans, just ask those of videogame The Last of Us: Part II (2020)); this does make for a more classically satisfying ending, but it also seems so unlike Eggers to not have pulled out the rug from under us. Perhaps the negative reception to the ambiguous endings of The Lighthouse and The Witch have made Eggers warm towards a more predictable structure and story in order to get funding for his more ambitious projects.
In the end, The Northman is another fascinating film from Eggers. The unique Viking setting along with the director’s distinct style, make for a unique and impactful viewing. The film does not shy away from uncomfortable scenes and subjects, along with the mastery behind the camera help make The Northman an unforgettable watch.