Robert Eggers' The Northman struggles to balance an uneven narrative amidst striking visuals

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By Claire Meakins, Second Year, English Literature

Robert Eggers is undeniably an unusual director and The Northman is undeniably an unusual film. Bursting with violence and gore, it maintains an oddly artsy feel despite the film also fulfilling many tropes of the action and fantasy genres.

Eggers’ style is printed on every shot, with transitions into black and white and strange hallucinatory sequences being reminiscent of his biggest hit The Witch (2015). It’s a style that’s incredibly compelling and manages to make even the most brutal of scenes beautiful. Characters are placed in the centre of the frame and frequently stare straight into the camera, increasing the film’s intensity and showcasing its exceptional acting talent.

Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún // Courtesy of UPI Media

Alexander Skarsgård as the main character, Amleth, has a huge presence and is intimidating both in his physicality and his stoicism. He carries the film well and offers a degree of nuance to a role which could have easily been fairly flat. Nicole Kidman delivers the best performance by far, despite her limited screen time. In one pivotal scene, she manages to effortlessly move between affectionate mother, cunning tyrant and incestuous temptress. An odd combination, but one that proves her remarkable versatility.

The oddness certainly doesn’t begin and end with her though. From the outset, the film is deliberately nightmarish and revels in shifting between the haunting and the thrilling. The various supernatural characters throughout epitomise this, with Willem Dafoe delivering a brief but unforgettable performance as a court jester/seer who initiates a young Amleth into Viking manhood. Shot in low light with amber candlelight, the scene is striking and likely to make you want to take a long, deep breath to recover afterwards.

Courtesy of UPI Media

Perhaps The Northman’s main issue though is that it is so overwhelming. The action is unrelenting, with sword fighting, screaming, and the supernatural dominating the film’s 140-minute runtime. These elements are done well but they take up so much time that character development and realistic storytelling fall by the wayside.

The film poses interesting questions that it fails to answer; the main one being whether Amleth’s desire for violent revenge is justified. His character is practically the embodiment of toxic masculinity and while this is sometimes drawn into heavy focus, nothing is done with it. It would have been interesting to have seen the film really question how heroic he is and, even, make him more of an anti-hero instead.

Skarsgård & Taylor-Joy // Courtesy of UPI Media

The scenes which are supposed to show his character’s sensitivity and internal conflict are rarely expanded on. The romance with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to come out of nowhere and mostly be a tool to make him more likeable. Unfortunately, Olga herself is often used as little more than pretty set dressing, although there are a couple of scenes which allow Taylor-Joy to truly shine. It would have been nice to have seen the couple’s dynamic be more of a focus given that it forms an integral part of the film’s ending.

The ending is quite predictable due to the film’s emphasis on the role of destiny and prophecy. We are told virtually the whole plot near the start, meaning that, while the stakes may seem high, they aren’t in reality. Viewing the film as a warning against obsessing over fate, many of the plot elements make more sense, but it’s easy to feel like the entire film just follows a very formulaic structure.

Courtesy of UPI Media

If the ending subverted that structure, then it could have been an extremely effective tale on the tension between individual agency and inherited tradition. The foundation was certainly for such ideas, but at the end of the day The Northman doesn’t quite deliver in terms of subverting the unexpected.

On the whole, The Northman delivers a solid premise with superb cinematography and acting but with less than superb character and story development. When the film is good, it’s intense and compelling; when the film is bad, it’s laughably formulaic. It is, however, certainly a film worth watching to appreciate an exceptional director realising a strong artistic vision.

Featured Image: UPI Media


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