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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

‘The Northman’ is the best revenge film in years

Image sources: Variety, The New Yorker, Universal Pictures

In his latest film “The Northman,” Robert Eggers takes us back to the Viking Age as we follow a young Viking prince on his quest to reclaim his kingdom, kill his murderous uncle, avenge his father’s death and save his mother. If this sounds at all familiar, that’s because it’s basically “Hamlet” (well, actually it’s closer to “The Lion King”) but with Vikings. Interestingly, the plot of the film is based on an Icelandic Saga that inspired Shakespeare to write “Hamlet,” so we’re actually watching one of the earliest versions of the classic royal revenge tale. That’s basically all you need to know about the plot.

“The Northman” is a technical masterpiece, much like Egger’s other films. He is one of my favorite directors working today and, in my eyes, can do no wrong. The display of sheer technical mastery in this film is absolutely awe-inspiring. There are no quick cuts or flashy edits. Rather, “The Northman” is a film made all the more remarkable by its lack of obvious edits. The shots in this film are remarkably long, each movement is masterfully choreographed and every single thing in the frame is deliberately placed there. One of the film’s most striking sequences is a raid on a village, helmed by our hero Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard). The entire raid is shown in one impressive long take, with the camera passing through walls and keeping pace with Amleth as he brutally hacks his way through those who dare to challenge him. It’s breathtaking, visceral and one of the most entertaining action sequences that I have ever seen. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke put their all into every single shot in this film, it is a film that must be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate how stunning it is.

There is little to fault here, but as a critic, I must critique. One thing that Eggers’ other films had that “The Northman” lacks is subtext. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are both rich in symbolism and subtext throughout their runtimes, leaving the audience with a wide variety of possible interpretations of each film. “The Northman” is about as cut and dry as it gets, at least by Eggers’ standards. It’s all relatively unambiguous in the end. That’s not what I want from an Eggers film. I want to be immersed in a bewildering story that can be interpreted differently by each person who sees it. I want to be left trying to piece together the story. I left “The Northman” giddy with excitement for the unique way the story was told and Eggers’ technical mastery, yet my friend and I never even had to discuss what the film was actually about. It’s a strange criticism, I know, but it is my one sticking point. If it were made by any other filmmaker, I would hail it as their masterwork, but Eggers has shown me that he can do more.

Back to the positives.

The acting in this film is incredible. Eggers is known for getting amazing performances from amazing actors and “The Northman” is no exception. The world and characters are so vividly rendered by Eggers’ script, direction and production design that the audience feels like they are in Iceland watching a Viking version of “Game of Thrones” play out before their eyes. It’s incredible to watch a cast of well-known actors such as Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke and many others become completely unrecognizable through their performances.

“The Northman” is a film that made me fall in love with the craft of making films all over again. I left the theater abuzz, I wanted to pick up my camera and create something the minute I got home. You owe it to yourself to go see “The Northman,” it’s the best action film of the year and unlike so many action films, it has passion and a soul that you can feel. The story, much like the world it is set in is bleak and brutal, but “The Northman” does not disappoint.


Title: “The Northman”

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman

Director: Robert Eggers

If You Like: “The Revenant” “The Lighthouse” “Gladiator”

Where to Watch: In Theaters

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5