4.5 out of 5 stars

From the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, you’re fully immersed in this world. Immersion’s become a sort of calling card for Eggers, who’s known for the remarkable amount of research he does to make the settings and locations (17th-century New England or Scandinavia 895 A.D) feel as authentic as possible. 

The Northman opens with a prologue detailing the final moments of normality for young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) before his life’s completely changed in a matter of minutes. When Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill the War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), returns from battle, he feels death’s on the horizon thanks to an infected wound. Considering his desire to die in battle so he can enter Valhalla, Aurvandill plans on leaving again almost immediately. 

With limited time left to spend with his son and heir, Aurvandill feels it’s necessary to have Amleth undergo a spiritual coming-of-age ceremony led by Heirmir (Willem Dafoe) the fool. The sequence that follows is one of many truly trippy moments in the film, also featuring a bit of Eggers’ trademark flatulence. 

As Aurvandill and Amleth leave the hut in the glow of morning light, they’re attacked by War-Raven’s brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) and his men, Aurvandill is beheaded, Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) is carried away screaming, and the village is destroyed. Young Amleth narrowly manages to escape at sea in a small boat, but is suddenly left with nothing and no one, chanting to himself “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir…” as he rows away.

“Some years later,” Amleth (now played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård) is a member of a marauding band of Vikings. We’re along for the ride as Amleth and these Vikings stage a raid on a hapless village in a stunning sequence with moving pieces in every inch of the frame.  Afterwards, Amleth comes upon a Seeress (Icelandic pop star Björk), who predicts Amleth will indeed exact revenge on Fjolnir, but at a cost, so Amleth sets out to avenge his father and save his mother. And his quest will come to involve undead spirits, a ‘He-Witch’, blood sacrifices, incestuous kisses, religious fervor, valkyries, decapitations, one of the bloodiest sports in human history, and a climactic sword fight set atop an erupting volcano.

Skarsgård is also a producer on the movie, and being of Swedish heritage he has long mentioned his goal to make a big-screen Viking movie, the likes of which are lacking. But there’s been a rash of successful Viking TV shows over the last decade, and that undoubtedly had an effect on The Northman receiving a green light despite a reported $70-90M budget. Skarsgård’s rugged, sweaty performance is a highlight, and the entire cast is game, including Eggers regulars Dafoe and Anya-Taylor Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) as Olga of the Birch Forest, a Slavic sorceress and love interest for Amleth. But it’s Kidman who steals the show…

At first, Queen Gudrun seems to be a bit of a rote character and almost an extended cameo, but as the story progresses Gudrun’s true role in proceedings begins to reveal itself… and a fiery monologue Kidman expels towards the end of the film is her most impressive work in years. 

It’s the rare assault-on-your-senses epic that’s also emotionally resonant. There are twists and turns you haven’t seen before, meaning this Viking-infused Hamlet is both overwhelming and surprising. The Northman is a propulsive, exciting historical action film that only those squeamish about blood and gore may dislike.

USA | 2022 | 137 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH OLD NORSE

frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

director: Robert Eggers.
writers: Sjón & Robert Eggers.
starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk & Willem Dafoe.