What defines The Northman isn’t its staggeringly beautiful camera work. It isn’t found in the captivating performances or the poetic pacing. It isn’t even the meticulous attention to ancient and withered detail. Instead, the beauty of The Northman lies in its evocation of belief. Set in a world far more rudimentary than our own, director Robert Eggers’ Viking tale slithers down your spine asking you to confront what you believe to be real. And slyly warns that believing, in and of itself, is what creates reality.
In the last decade there has been a sort of flaring in the popularity of stories centered around the Norse Vikings, from television shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, to games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and For Honor. It seems, for the most part, people are enamored by tales of Vikings and their romances and exploits. Along with this fascination comes differing levels of attention to historical detail, and much to the chagrin of many a Norse history scholar, it seems many of these productions fall short of their expectations. For The Northman, Eggers called on Neil Price, an archeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, Terry Gunnell, a folklorist at the University of Iceland, and Jóhanna Friðriksdóttir, a Viking historian. Together they weave one of the most historically attentive pieces of Norse fiction I have ever seen.
The Northman is borne from the Norse legend of Amleth, which in turn is the direct inspiration of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Anyone familiar with Macbeth will see similarities in the plot almost immediately. Thankfully Eggers, with the help of Icelandic author and poet Sjón, is willing to take liberties with the specific story beats. Still, a savvy viewer will notice this revenge story of a boy, kingdom stolen by his uncle, bound by revenge, has been made many times. And still, the fact remains, it has never been done in this way.
Eggers’ third outing, following the devilishly sinister Witch in 2015 and The Lighthouse in 2019, The Northman slips into Eggers dark and foreboding sensibilities early, introducing us to a windswept and snowy holm in Iceland. Immediately you are struck by the stark photography. Shale blues and ocean greens all dimmed by the stone gray clouds. I couldn’t help but remember last year’s incredible The Green Knight. With settings so raw and spare it’s hard to not draw parallels. It’s here we are introduced to a young Amleth, his father and mother Aurvandil and Gudrún, played exquisitely by Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman. The costume design is a sight to behold in itself. Accurately, there are no horns on helmets, thank Odin. There is perhaps a bit too much fur, but Aurvandil pops in a fur cloak so I’ll forgive it.
Almost as quickly as we are introduced to our characters things start happening. There’s a menacing and slightly aloof ceremony Amleth and his father take part in wherein they drink a hallucinogen and crawl around like dogs in a mud hut, all while court jester Heimr the Fool (Willem Dafoe) prompts them with questions clarifying if they are man or beast. From the earliest moments, Eggers starts playing with our preconceived notions of belief.
A quick time jump later and we watch Amleth as an adult fight alongside a group of Vikings you might assume are Berserkers, but—again, accurately—aren’t seen imbibing any substances before battle. This is the first time we get a good look at the brutal culture of the Vikings. This battle is fast and wicked. Alexander Skarsgård has bulked up for films before but in The Northman he is a special kind of imposing. His strut, arms out, head forward, makes him not unlike an animal.
It is in the aftermath of this battle that Amleth is given his fate. Björk, famed Icelandic singer and actress, in her first role in more than fifteen years, appears in an ashen temple. He is destined to fell the man that slew his father, kidnapped his mother, and stole his kingdom. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (an Eggers mainstay) illustrate religion so deftly in this film. Björk’s Seeress is centered in an ash black room painted in stark white. The corners of the screen grow fuzzy, tilt-shifting the subjects. The intimacy and still smallness of the encounter is arresting, capturing both the eyes and the mind.
The Northman takes us to many places, most notably “The Land of Rus,” where this raid takes place. It’s an interesting choice for a Viking epic, eschewing the typical Norse setting of Finland or Norway and focusing on the Viking exploits in Belarus. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga of the Birch Forest speaks in Ancient Ukrainian. In interviews, Robert Eggers has been asked what he thinks setting the film partially in Ancient Ukraine, given current events. His answers always center on the fact that “this is their world, not ours.” Noting that the violence we see now has thousands of years of history. More than that, “humans never change.”
In an interview on Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, Eggers is prompted about his view of religion and when he became more cynical about it. Eggers’ answer is measured and articulate, but what stuck with me the most was his initial response: that his biggest fear is “by believing, I make it real.” I have a hard time seeing The Northman in any other light. Amleth is a man possessed by his prescribed destiny. And because he believes it to be so true, he binds himself to its tenets. He is driven by his belief to the point that he is a man obsessed, even possessed by divine purpose. Eggers grounds this all in deeply authentic Norse tradition. A tradition, one should note, that is steeped in blood and violence.
The Northman, violent as it may be, never strikes me as gratuitous. Much like Eggers is willing to allow sexual violence to be implied rather than shown, a fact that I am eternally grateful for, he plays the violence through this film to similar effect. Several times the camera glances at a grotesque moment, sure, but Eggers is much more interested in allowing the actors on set to show you the effect of the violence around them than show you it outright. The camera pans past a gory effigy to focus on the waiting faces of those witnessing the construct. It’s a subtle but masterful method of putting you, the viewer, in the place without turning your stomach. This method of storytelling, coupled with Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score, is intoxicating.
As a treatise to Norse history and an adaptation of a legend codified by Saxo Grammaticus in the Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), The Northman is a triumphant effort in historiographical fiction. From the necklace given to Amleth by his father—clearly an Abbasid dirham, indicative of his father’s plunderous exploits—to the portrayal of a Rus Viking burial that resounds with the writings of Ibn Fadland. Even in the early mention of transporting thralls (slaves) to places like Uppsala, Kyiv, and Iceland.
Eggers set out to make the “most accurate Viking movie ever made,” and The Northman delivers. A brutal and darkly illustrated triptych of a world separate from our own, steeped in familiar blood and violence. It’s investigation of religion, loyalty, honor, and responsibility is diverse and mystical. While certainly less ambiguous than David Lowery’s The Green Knight, this film deserves to be seen in the largest format possible, to ensure the beauty and violence played across the screen is appreciated in all its bloody, muddy glory. Skål. Skål, indeed. | Caleb Sawyer