If there were to be one common thread seen across all of Robert Eggers films from the past 8 years, it would be his love of folkloric tales. In fact, Eggers devotion to this narrative tree is so strong that he openly admits to framing his entire films around them, often seeking simplified narratives so he can divert his attention to the things he really cares about. To no one’s surprise, The Northman is a film with a very simple narrative, one that can be briefly summed up as: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir” – that’s it. The Northman follows the story of a fallen prince named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who vows to uphold an oath he made to his family; to save his mother (Nicole Kidman) and kill the man (Claes Bang) who murdered his father (Ethan Hawke).
In essence, this is a simple revenge tale, one that was adapted from the Old Norse sagas of the 13th century; these are stories of such deep history and influence that they even inspired Shakespere’s Hamlet. So, this is loosely speaking, a tale as old as time – a classic, even. However, the way in which Robert Eggers tells this classical story through filmmaking is anything but normal. For those who aren’t a fan of Eggers previous films, be prepared to receive more of the same oddities; for those who are, you’ll know you’re in for some truly bizarre visual and tonal sequences. Put those Class A drugs away, you genuinely won’t need ’em’ here.
One could describe Eggers as a director that cares just as much about worldbuilding as he does the characters that inhabit his stories. The world in The Northman boasts a veritable visual feast containing wide vistas and epic landscapes that frame the image. The boundless mossy tundras provide a primal yet mythological feeling to the environment and the roaring volcanic slopes embody a sense of power and untamed fury. A lot of visual and tonal similarities in The Northman can also be seen in David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) – a film that similarly adapts an old tale about a journeying “warrior” on a fated quest. And just like Lowery’s work on The Green Knight, Eggers strikes a beautiful balance between the mysterious presence of a mythological world and the overwhelming beauty of our natural world, all without the use of excessive CGI; more on these similarities later.
To expand more on Eggers feats of worldbuilding here, I would add that worldbuilding as a whole refers to more than just the physical world itself, it also refers to the tone and micro-storytelling; simply, the story being told by all of the smaller details. Eggers shines greatly here as a director and former production designer, as he is now seen as an industry-leader in historically authentic storytelling. Going as far as to hire experts to ensure almost each and every detail on his sets are as true to known history as possible. A reminder of just how seriously he takes the tone of his story and world. Furthermore, his collaboration with Sjón, an Icelandic writer and poet, leads to near ludicrous levels of detail surrounding the many narrative myths and tales told throughout The Northman .
Some might argue that Eggers focuses too much on his lavishly detailed narratives with a saturated lore, but one could also argue that perhaps too many directors ignore these elements, and so audiences have grown accustomed to their absence. In fact, something that has perhaps become pleasantly apparent about Eggers is that he’s often not trading style for substance like some would believe you need to do when creating an intricate world or story. Eggers has shown to be proficient at both character writing and worldbuilding. If The Lighthouse (2019) is an indication of anything, it’s that his characters can be as intricately written as his stories. However, this is not necessarily the case here with The Northman. See, while I give full credits to Alexander Skarsgård’s towering portrayal of Prince Amleth, Nicole Kidman’s haunting portrayal of Queen Gudrún, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s surprisingly powerful role as Olga of the Birch Forest, I would argue the characters in The Northman still fall just shy of the scale of everything else on display here.
While the powerful acting behind these characters seemingly reach the epic levels that The Northman demands, the logical drive behind their motivations become hazy and even feel underdeveloped at times. Specifically, Olga of the Birch Forest (a witch played by Anya Taylor-Joy) feels somewhat out of place in this film, with her motivations and sincerity feeling unclear. She feels more like a plot device than a truly developed character. On top of this, Amleth (Skarsgård) also, at times, struggles to convey a convincing sense of motivation other than raw brutish rage. It’s as though we were not given enough time or provided enough context to buy into Amleth’s internal suffering. Apart from these rushed story elements, The Northman almost entirely achieves its goal as a folkloric revenge epic.
Eggers continues this strong disposition to weave folkloric lessons through his characters too; intertwining their growth with an often doomed fate that ends in some form of tragedy or moral lesson. Examples of his characters meeting their ironic or predestined fate can be seen in all of his works; The Witch (2014) ends in tragic irony and The Lighthouse (2019) in fated damnation from a mere superstition. The Northman is no different from these; heck, take one look at the tagline “conquer your fate” and you get a pretty good idea that this film is going to include some sort of climactic ending that makes you sit there pondering what you just witnessed. And let me tell you, it did.
Was every element in this film perfect? No. Is it Egger’s best film so far? For many it will be, I’m still deciding. But what is known is that it succeeds in everything it set out to do, except make a box office return (ouch!). This was a viking revenge epic that didn’t sacrifice the energy and tone that makes an Egger’s film feel like an Egger’s film. And while many will compliment Skarsgård’s impressive physical physique or the glorious one-takes seen throughout the film (which are all fantastic achievements) – I’m just glad that we got an excessive amount of wacky hallucinatory sequences.