Review: The Northman – A bloody, awkward Viking revenge story

Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, The Witch) directs this tale based on a Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you have seen any of Eggers previous works you know that he has a talent for awkward and uncomfortable story telling. Sometimes that pays off as a good story and other times not so much. The Northman comes in to tell a tale of revenge and Viking lore featuring Alexander Skarsgård in the lead role as Amleth.

Prince Amleth is on the verge of becoming a man when his father is brutally murdered by his uncle, who kidnaps the boy’s mother. Two decades later, Amleth is now a Viking who raids Slavic villages. He soon meets a seeress who reminds him of his vow — save his mother, kill his uncle, avenge his father.

Review

The Northman starts us out in early AD time as a Viking king returns from battle to his home island. A young Amleth (Oscar Novak) excitedly goes to report the return of his father to his mother (Nicole Kidman). We are quickly greeted with Viking traditions of gifts, drinking and then quickly dive into more ritualistic tendencies. The king wishes to prepare his son for rule, and part of that tradition is meeting a shaman of sorts for their village who requires them to do some unusual things before he is willing to share the secrets of ruling with Amleth. Leave it to Willem Dafoe to play a creepy character in another Eggers production.

Then the king is murdered by his brother and the Hamlet saga begins its course. Outside of the Viking setting of the story, everything else that transpires is nothing fresh or unique in the world of revenge stories. However, Eggers manages to make many scenes awkward to sit through in the theatre. Whether its the characters acting like dogs to earn wisdom, or becoming wolfs to rip out the throats of their enemies. Or how about later in the film an awkward incestual innuendo between Amleth (Skarsgård) and his mother (Kidman). In the end, it left me feeling unsure of where the story wanted to go or what it wanted to be.

The Northman tried at times to reach the level of historical fantasy craziness of Snyder’s 300. For example Anya Taylor-Joys character depicted at one point as a Valkyrie, though for most audience members that is not clear or easily known. Visually it looks epic, but some of the style and design choices fall flat or feel completely out of place with the tone of the scene. Each attempt to reach that level of filming grandeur fell short into a canyon of story points that just fell flat or left the room in awkward silence or even laughter during otherwise serious moments. But not all is lost for the film.

The visuals are still stunning and well shot for the locations and style of the film and the costume design. Along with a solid score, these help keep the film from becoming completely camp and unwatchable. Eggers has said a lot of research was done to keep the historical aspects of Viking life as real to history as possible. For example during Anya Taylor-Joys ‘Valkyrie’ scene we mentioned earlier you notice what appears to be braces or marks of some kind on her teeth. Historically Vikings were known to file lines into the enamel of their front teeth and paint them with colored resin as a form of showing their fierceness. One of those small details that Eggers put into the research but may very well end up lost on the audience. Personally, I had to research it myself for it to make sense. But even with that its clear throughout the film that mysticism and folklore liberties are taken to move the story along and make it entertaining. Some being a bit awkward at times.

The Northman hits theatres 4/22.

Robert Prentice