The Northman is director Robert Egger’s version of Hamlet. The classic Shakesperian tale of a son getting revenge on his uncle who killed his father years earlier. We’ve seen this story numerous times, whether it was a direct adaptation of the Shakespeare play or with animated lions. But with Eggers behind the camera, The Northman is a thrilling experience and solidifies Eggers as one of the premier visual artists working today.
The Northman starts in A.D. 895, where we find King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) coming back from war, where he is greeted by the people of his village, his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and his son Amieth (Oscar Novak). The following day, Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and a small army ambush the King and kill him. Fjölnir and his men then massacre the village and take the Queen away. Amieth flees on a boat, swearing to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir.
We then jump forward years later and find a grown-up Amieth (Alexander Skarsgård) has joined a group of Vikings that take over villages with a violent fury. When Amieth hears about Fjölnir’s whereabouts in Iceland, he sneaks aboard a slave ship heading that way and disguises himself as a slave. He becomes a slave on Fjölnir’s farm and begins to construct his plan of revenge.
Despite the Hamlet-revenge tale being very familiar and playing out exactly how we expect it to, Eggers makes the film interesting because of his understanding of atmosphere and visuals. With great settings and production design, Eggers immerses us in this Viking world, which is a brutal, grimy world. This is one of those movies that you feel. You feel how brutal it was to live in those times. You feel the mud that the slaves work in and the sweat dripping from their bodies. You feel the gusting winds and the Icelandic weather and how unpleasant it is. Eggers also seeps us into Norse mythology, which can be confusing for people who aren’t very familiar with it, like me, but makes for some interesting searching and reading beyond the movie.
Eggers’s visuals are the highlight of the film. This is one of the best-looking films of 2022. The Northman is only Eggers’s third feature film, yet it solidifies him as an outstanding visual filmmaker. He understands the space in the frame and shoots on a large scale and a small scale brilliantly. The way Eggers gorgeously shows us the vast Icelandic landscape and the intensity of the epic battle sequences, which are stunning and shockingly violent, is masterful and that of a true pro. But he also does an equally good job of shooting the quieter moments of the film, like the intimate conversations between Amieth and Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress and slave he falls in love with. The showstopper of the film comes early on when grown Amieth and his Viking crew take over a small village. It is a single-take shot that follows Amieth as he kills dozens of the villagers. It’s the best filmmaking moment of Eggers’s career so far and one of the best sequences of the year.
Skarsgård has the look and build for our vengeful Viking. He doesn’t quite hit all the dramatic beats fully, but his physical presence is jaw-dropping and he wears the fire and intensity of Amieth in a terrifying fashion. The supporting cast of Hawke, Kidman and Bang are top-notch, and Taylor-Joy, who worked previously with Egger on his first film, The Witch, gives one of the best performances of her young and impressive career.
The Northman is a visceral experience. This is the most agro version of Hamlet we will ever get. It is a Viking tale of revenge filled with violence, blood, and intensity. Eggers’s visual mastery and immersion in the time will have you gripped and you will leave the theater exhausted.
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