Watchable Minutes: On paper, 2 hours and 16 minutes sound like a long time to sit in a theater for a blood-soaked Viking action thriller but it absolutely flies by. The brutal action keeps the audience entertained and focused as the harsh reality of the story is doled out.
- Run time: 2 Hours 16 Minutes
- Studio: New Regency Productions
- Director: Robert Eggers
- Where to Watch: In Theaters
In the year 895 A.D. King Aurvandill War-Raven returns home to his kingdom and is reunited with his young son, Amleth, and his wife, Queen Gudrún. Aurvandill saw much in his travels and was seriously wounded, barely surviving the voyage home. His brush with death has made him realize that it is time that his son Amleth becomes a man. Together they participate in a ritual guided by the court jester Heimir and Amleth learns what it takes to be a King. The next morning, Amleth and his father are ambushed by his Uncle Fjölnir and his father is killed. Amleth escapes and sees his village destroyed and his mother taken by his uncle. Amleth flees but swears to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir.
Young Amleth eagerly awaits at the gate of his father’s kingdom. King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) has returned home after a long campaign to gather riches and resources. After seeing his father on the way up to the gate, Amleth runs to inform his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), that the King has returned. Gudrún reprimands the boy for barging into her private chambers and readies herself to strike the boy as a servant arrives to tell her the same news. She regains her composure and takes her son’s hand to go and greet her husband. Aurvandill greets his family and subjects with happiness and riches, excited to be home after a long and brutal conquest. Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) arrives late in the celebration and greets his king coldly. The two do not see eye to eye, that much is clear but certain respect must be maintained when addressing the King. Later that evening, King Aurvandill reveals that he has been grievously wounded and only barely survived his voyage home. He declares that it is time for Amleth to participate in the ritual all heirs to the throne must partake in to become men. Father and son go to the temple and are instructed in the ancient ritual by the court jester and trusted ally Heimir. Visions of kings and queens past, present, and future fill young Amleth’s eyes and he sheds his last tear and becomes a man.
The next morning Aurvandill and Amleth leave the temple and are immediately attacked by masked men. Amleth runs to cover as Aurvandill is slowly torn to shreds with spears, arrows, and swords. The leader of the attacks removes his mask and reveals himself to be Fjölnir. Aurvandill delivers his last words, promising revenge and vengeance as Fjölnir removes his head. Amleth escapes and flees to the village. He discovers that the village has been raided and his mother is taken hostage by Fjölnir. Swearing to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill Fjölnir, Amleth rows out to sea and is rescued by a band of Vikings. Years pass and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has become a true berserker, filled with rage and fueled by his thirst for vengeance. After a successful raid, Amleth wanders through the husk of the village and glimpses a spirit in the burned remains of a longhouse. He confronts the spirit and she presents him with a chilling prophecy that will lead Amleth to his revenge. In the next few days, he overhears that a shipment of slaves is to be sent to Fjölnir, now called Fjölnir the Brotherless after his treachery was discovered. After years of waiting, Amleth now knows the path he must take to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill Fjölnir. He stows aboard the slave shipment and is brought to his traitorous uncle’s house with his true identity a secret from all except for one slave called Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) who joins him in his plot for revenge.
This is not a movie for the faint of heart or those who don’t have a stomach for violence and brutality. True Viking tales are not often romanticized and for good reason. Berserkers were the stuff of nightmares for hundreds of years and The Northman leans into that fact with all its might. Amleth is a flat, one-dimensional character that has lived his whole life in pursuit of vengeance and nothing else. However, Skarsgård is able to call upon some well of emotion to create a thoroughly convincing and almost frightening interpretation of the simple character and is able to match the physical presence of his character with a fury that can only match the gods. The rage-filled screams and savage choreography of Amleth’s fight scenes are a testament to the historical accuracy of the movie and elevate the character to legendary status. While Amleth is shouting and hacking off limbs, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga fills the archetypal role of love interest and witch at the same time. Olga is not complex, but mysterious. She references forest spirits and calls upon ancient magics that her Slavic heritage grants her in order to assist Amleth while fulfilling her own goals of revenge against her captors. Amleth and Olga’s relationship is simple. They fall in love based on their mutual desire to get revenge and because it makes sense for them to do so. Ancient stories have a habit of saying characters fall in love without any great explanation as to why, but the black and white context of The Northman makes it acceptable because it continues to do what is necessary to serve the story of Amleth’s revenge.
Ethan Hawke as Aurvandill War-Raven is a minimal role as he does not make it past the first 30 minutes of the movie, but his impact on the tone of The Northman cannot be understated. Having the wrong actor play Aurvandill would have been catastrophic. Hawke’s Aurvandill has an unquenchable desire for glory that ultimately leads to his downfall and it cascades down throughout the rest of the movie as Skarsgård takes the tone set by Hawke and dials it up to 11. Playing Queen Gudrún is Nicole Kidman, a veteran actress (side note, I hate her AMC commercial with a passion) with an impressive list of movies on her resume. She portrays the Queen with dignity and poise even though she is driven by the same fires of revenge that fuel her son Amleth. The rest of the cast, including Willem Dafoe and Claes Bang, are suitable for their roles, neither of which are career-defining by any means. They understood the characters enough to make them believable, but not exceptional.
As mentioned previously, the choreography and action scenes are very impressive. It would seem that there were no reservations held when filming The Northman because it is damn brutal in every sense of the word. Action fans can expect the same level of swordsmanship and combat from movies like 300 and the precision that has come to be associated with John Wick. The decision to film with a single camera paid off in spades because it ensured every shot was intentional, as well as personal. Every kill, hack, slash, scream and punch felt like it came from a real-life Viking berserker. Most of the movie takes place in cloudy lighting or on moonlight nights but everything was still easy to see or at least interpret to a certain degree so the audience still knew what was happening. The few scenes set in the day made the Icelandic landscapes look beautiful with the fields and mountains surrounding everything, giving everything going on before them a feeling of insignificance in the grand scheme of things. While the visuals and stellar camera work did the lion’s share of the work in making this amazing movie, the score is no less impressive. Deep, guttural, and archaic sounds fill the ears of the audience and characters alike, awakening animalistic tendencies that have long been dormant. The historical accuracy did not end with the visual depiction of The Northman. It is kept alive in the soundstage as there is nothing modern to be found amongst the otherworldly and terrifying sounds.
Loud, animalistic, and brutal. Those are the three best ways to describe Robert Eggers’ The Northman. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, and Ethan Hawke, this 2-hour 16-minute Viking epic feels like an ancient story that has been recreated in the medium of film. Recent movies like The Tragedy of Macbeth and The Green Knight have remastered classic Shakespearean dramas and epic poems with insane detail and pageantry for the silver screen and The Northman is their equal in historical accuracy and minute details. Unlike the work of Joel Coen and David Lowery, Robert Eggers adds an unapologetic amount of violence, buckets of blood, brutal choreography, and classic Viking mysticism to create a thrilling and captivating action adventure.