The Northman Review

PLOT: After his father, the King (Ethan Hawke), is murdered by his brother (Claes Bang), a Viking prince named Amleth escapes his kingdom, vowing to return and take revenge. Years later, the now hulking Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) discovers his murderous uncle lost his kingdom and is now a feudal lord. Amleth poses as a slave to take his revenge but must decide what to do about his mother (Nicole Kidman) and young half-brother.

REVIEW: If The Northman‘s premise sounds a bit like Hamlet, that’s because the old Scandinavian legend of Amleth directly influenced William Shakespeare. Robert Eggers’ epic new film is an adaptation by him and Icelandic writer Sjón of the ancient tale. Indeed, it’s a classic tale of revenge that lends itself beautifully to what will no doubt be considered the definitive Viking movie, with Eggers brilliantly making a move into big-budget action. His artful but accessible film ranks among the best films I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

For many of us, Alexander Skarsgard’s Amleth should become his definitive role. It’s one of those unforgettable performances that seems bound to be iconic. Packing loads of muscle onto his already imposing frame, Skarsgard’s Amleth is a terrifying hero. While we meet the character as a boy, being ushered into the world of Vikings by his loving father, the King (a memorable role for Ethan Hawke – who’s cast against type), Skarsgard’s introduction is breathtaking. When we first meet him, it’s been years since he had to flee his homeland, and he’s become a Berserker warrior – part of a group of travelling Vikings that lay waste to villages, rob and pillage, and take slaves. There’s a brilliant setpiece where Eggers shoots a Berserker siege in a single, unbroken take that will be discussed for years to come. At the end of the siege, the Berserkers take slaves to barter. Among them is Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a sorceress, and the two begin to rely on one another once Amleth’s plan springs into action, with him branding himself a slave so he can be sold to his murderous uncle, played by Claes Bang.

Eggers has crafted one of the most immersive historical films I’ve ever seen. Meticulously researched, it makes other Viking shows and movies look cartoonish by comparison. Apparently, Skarsgard himself has sought to make a Viking film for over a decade. You can tell that he and Eggers approached the material not just wanting to make a generic historical action movie. We get into the Viking mindset and beliefs, with some hallucinatory sequences peppered throughout, such as a trippy early one with Willem Dafoe’s Heimir, who’s the court fool and the keeper of Viking legends.

Eggers has done a great job giving the film his personal stamp, as you don’t hire the director of The Witch and The Lighthouse unless you want a bold vision. But, he also doesn’t deny the audience plenty of action, with some incredible action setpieces, including the Berserker raid and a fantastic sequence where Amleth is forced to play a brutal Viking game that devolves into a show-stopping fight between him and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, better known as The Mountain from Game of Thrones.

While this is Skargard’s movie through and through, with him virtually never offscreen following the prologue, the supporting cast is terrific, with Anya Taylor-Joy having a great part that’s somewhat reminiscent of her turn in The Witch. She’s a sorceress named Olga who, as she tells Amleth, can break men’s minds. Ultimately, like Amleth, she’s portrayed as a somewhat heroic character, as they remain loyal to each other and lack the cruelty of virtually everyone else in this world.

As Amleth’s mother, Nicole Kidman initially seems like an odd piece of casting, but her chemistry with Skarsgard, leftover from Big Little Lies, benefits the second half of the film when her performance starts to truly take shape. Once she’s unleashed, Kidman is terrific. Claes Bang makes for a memorably complex villain. As cruel as he is to his slaves, some moments depict a genuine love for his family, and Bang, who towers at 6’4, really holds his own in the epic sword battle that closes the film. Plus, Bjork shows up in a memorable cameo as an eyeless seer. All in all, a perfectly assembled cast.

Technically, the movie is impeccable as well. While Eggers favoured more unusual aspect ratios for The Lighthouse and The Witch, where he shoots the film in 2:1, giving true scope to Jarin Blaschke’s visuals. The movie is a visual and sonic feast, with incredible sound design and a score by Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough that MUST be remembered by the academy next year. It all adds up to a genuinely immersive Viking experience, with loads of action and violent carnage that should please everyone. The Northman delivers all of the action you want from a movie like this, but Eggers also elevates it by giving it a truly original, artistic bent. This is one of the best mixings of the arthouse and blockbuster genres that I’ve ever seen. Trust me when I tell you, The Northman is a masterpiece.

The Northman, reactions, Alexander Skarsgard

The Northman



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.