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Film Review: Viking Epic “The Northman” Delivers a Gripping, If Flawed, Tale of Revenge

Written by: Matt Patti | April 20th, 2022

Film poster: “The Northman”

The Northman (Robert Eggers, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Director Robert Eggers is best known for his work in the horror genre, notably as the writer/director of both The Witch and The Lighthouse. Eggers is famous for utilizing a slow but effective approach, spending much time with his characters and gradually building to a terrifying climax. He excels at these types of films, so I was quite intrigued when I first discovered that Eggers’ next film would be a fantasy epic. Enter The Northman, a Viking revenge tale that can be described as something along the lines of The Revenant meets 300, but with Eggers’ vision and own unique style shining through to provide a memorable experience.

The film begins with our main character, Prince Amleth, as a young boy (Oscar Novak, The Batman), watching eagerly as his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke, The Truth), arrives back from war. Unfortunately, the return is short-lived, as one day, when hiking with Amleth out in the woods, Aurvandil is murdered in a sudden attack by his brother (Amleth’s uncle), Fjölnir (Claes Bang, The Square). Amleth runs for his life, as he is also hunted, disguising himself enough to return home, only to see his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos), taken away by Fjölnir. Amleth escapes and vows to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle for what he has done. Years later, an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, Passing) finally discovers the whereabouts of Fjölnir, and at last gets his chance to fulfill his destiny and accomplish what he swore to do long ago.

Ethan Hawke in THE NORTHAMN ©Focus Features

Eggers succeeds in this new venture by using his own directing style and flair to his advantage as well as conjuring up some of his tactics from his horror roots. The film’s awe-inspiring technical elements—stunning cinematography, effective score, and excellent sound design—are its biggest achievements, for sure. The performances are not too far behind, with exceptional ones from the star-studded cast all around, including an impressive showing from Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.) as Olga, Amleth’s love interest. Cunning, confident, and bold, Olga is an important ally to Amleth, though I don’t quite personally buy the somewhat forced romance between the two. Nevertheless, Taylor-Joy plays Olga perfectly, showing her acting range in a role far different than what she usually takes on.

The plot of the film doesn’t quite match the high levels of the film’s artistic elements and performances but is overall still effective, even if there are a few shortcomings. The overarching storyline is one we’ve seen before, like a Viking version of Hamlet. However, there are intricacies in the plot that are unique enough to satisfy the viewer, including a variety of Viking rituals featured throughout that are quite compelling, one of which establishes the connection between Amleth and his father Aurvandil and gives the audience just enough time to accept that the two have a quality bond before Aurvandil’s death.

l-r: Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in THE NORTHMAN ©Focus Features

The Northman does suffer from one large problem and a few smaller ones, however. The biggest issue I have with the film, and its largest shortcoming, is the lack of a true protagonist. One would believe it would be Amleth, but in reality I can’t really say there is any genuinely good character, in terms of morality. The Viking way of life is one of cruelty, involving brutality, rape, and the murder of innocents. Everyone in this film is guilty, even Amleth. In this way, Eggers presents a story in which evil people fight other evil people. It’s a thought-provoking conundrum, for sure, but the lack of a true hero hurts the film a bit. 

In addition to the aforementioned forced romance, another small complaint I have is that there are a few too many strange visions throughout the film that Amleth witnesses and which remind him of his fate and duty to avenge his father. These are unnecessary, reminding the viewer of what they already know and having no real purpose, though they do provide some decent injected horror elements into this fantasy epic. Overall, though, The Northman provides an exciting and memorable adventure that I believe will satisfy fantasy fans, those interested in Viking lore, and also fans of Eggers’ work.

Alexander Skarsgård in THE NORTHMAN ©Focus Features

Matt Patti has enjoyed voicing his opinions on films from a young age. He has lived in the Baltimore, Maryland, area since 2015 and is a graduate of Stevenson University’s Film & Moving Image program. Matt is currently back at Stevenson University, working as the School of Design, Arts, and Communication's Studio Manager.

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