The pandemic blew a hole in the shooting schedule and drove the budget up to $90 million, but Robert Eggers’s The Northman is finally set to open this week in the UK and Europe and next week in the U.S. What comes through loud and clear in the first round of reviews is an eager appreciation of the pleasures of a sweeping tale of revenge exacted by a tormented hero rushing headlong into fierce battle with near-superhuman strength and drive—but also delight in a story told by a team of creative minds rather than pieced together by committee, one that doesn’t succumb to the bland homogeneity of most actual superhero movies. As David Ehrlich puts it at IndieWire, The Northman is “the rare studio epic that would sooner die than submit to modern precepts of how it should be told.”
Cowritten by Eggers and Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, The Northman is a retelling of an Old Norse legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Over and again, the Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) vows to avenge his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke); save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman); and kill Fjölnir (Claes Bang), the uncle who murdered the king, ravaged the land, and ran off with the queen. It may be a familiar story, but Eggers has “fashioned a film of savage, unruly beauty,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “Corpses are crushed into mud or dangle like sadistic wall art. In nude moments of respite, hot springs wash off the crusted gore of foes.”
For Hannah Strong at Little White Lies,The Northman is “a film with fingerprints all over it; one that has been crafted rather than manufactured, and rewatches reveal a chance to revel in its sharpness; a scene in which Amleth seeks the counsel of a blind Seeress (the incomparable Björk) teems with intricate set and costume details, while a violent game of Knattleikr—a Viking cross between lacrosse and rugby—proves more adrenaline-inducing than any CGI special of recent years.”
With his first feature, The Witch (2015), an unnerving tale of black magic and an isolated family’s unraveling in 1630s New England, Eggers won the directing award at Sundance. The Witch was also a breakthrough for Anya Taylor-Joy, who appears in The Northman as Olga of the Birch Forest—and Amleth’s love interest. Eggers then revealed a flair for the comically absurd with The Lighthouse (2019), starring Willem Dafoe—Heimir the Fool in The Northman—and Robert Pattinson as two nineteenth-century “wickies” going at each other on a tiny island off the northeastern coast.
A few critics find that the unsettling but welcome oddity of those first two features goes missing in The Northman. At Slant, Mark Hanson writes that “unlike Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, a Viking-age head trip that’s steadfastly committed to its vibe of abstract expressionism, Eggers’s film is sometimes frustratingly shackled to the obligations of plot. It doesn’t lack for blood and guts, but it doesn’t play enough in the well of the weird, and missing here is that haunting sense of the elemental and oneness between people and place that animates The Witch and The Lighthouse.”
In the Irish Times, though, Donald Clarke points out that “few recent films on this scale have bustled with such intelligence and invention . . . Perhaps Eggers has lost some of the horrible intimacy we savored in his earlier work. But he offers us compensation in scope, intensity, and pure bloody ferocity.” And historical verisimilitude. “The Northman might be the most accurate Viking movie ever made,” writes Sam Knight in a fascinating profile of Eggers in the New Yorker.
Knight details the lengths that production designer Craig Lathrop, costume designer Linda Muir, and a small army of historians went to in order to ensure that every javelin thrown, every axe wielded, every longship launched, and every button on every coarse wool cloak is as it would have been in the early tenth century. Knight also sketches a life of the director, from the time the boy ditched his comics for fifteenth-century prints by Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer to his days designing and directing high school theatrical productions such as a restaging of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)—in black and white no less, the only color on stage being the blood drawn from the vampire’s bites.
Eggers has been trying to put together a full-blown remake of Nosferatu that would star Dafoe and Taylor-Joy, but the project has fallen through twice so far. He tells Guy Lodge in the Guardian that, while he appreciates the New Yorker profile, he does feel that Knight played up the concessions he made to the studio when editing The Northman. “This is my director’s cut,” insists Eggers. “The studio pressure made the film what I originally pitched to them, which was the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I could make.”
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