The Northman (Review): Weird In a Good Way

One of the most impressive movies I’ve seen in 2022! The Northman was an unexpected surprise. Read on for more thoughts…

The Northman is based on a famous Medieval Scandinavian story which allegedly inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It features the exploits of a Viking Prince named Amleth who witnesses the murder of his father by the hands of his uncle, and is forced to flee his kingdom. Amleth vows revenge against his Uncle Fjölnir, and returns to face him many years later.

What a movie! It’s not common to see epic stories of this budget and quality made anymore (unless they’re a big IP). And it did not disappoint.

I didn’t expect so much mysticism and prophecies and witchcraft though. The Northman‘s approach reminded me of The Green Knight but better. Robert Eggers managed to blend these elements into the story so that they added intrigue without being off-putting or hard to follow. It helps that I knew a little Scandinavian mythology going into the film though.

The Northman‘s narrative was strong, focused, and refreshingly low stakes. An injustice is committed in the first act, and that action must be repaid with vengeance. The story tells us each step to how the vengeance is perpetrated. Sprinkle in some action and romance for good measure, and boom! Got a good movie. The story flowed nicely and entertained throughout.

Simple doesn’t always mean uninspired though. There were multiple twists and turns throughout The Northman which left me surprised. Some clever trickery is incorporated to draw and keep your attention in certain places, where it maybe should be on others. It works nearly like a magic trick in that regard!

I also loved The Northman’s execution of its moral grays. Amleth may be our protagonist but he’s not a “good guy” per se. One of his first scenes as an adult features him raid and massacre a village. He’s a brute and a killer, yet someone we can root for. He merely wishes to avenge his father, honor his cultural beliefs, and save the life of someone he loves. Each of these motivations (whilst not executed “ideally” by moral standards) are admirable. And, in contrast, The Northman‘s antagonist isn’t exactly likable, but you at least understand his actions.

Alexander Skarsgard is in fine form as Amleth, both acting-wise and physically– ’cause holy crap his workout routine must have been insane! He mostly plays up Amleth’s stoic badassery. But most of his performance is found in his eyes: the rage, contentment, glimmers of happiness, love, disappointment.

Anya Taylor-Joy is great as Amleth’s ally, Olga. Her cunning and resourcefulness compliments Amleth’s single-minded brutality. Taylor-Joy imbues the character with a sense of mystery. I wished to learn more about her “powers” and background. Though the answers might have disappointed, and I’ve likely thought more about with only the questions to ponder.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in The Northman
By Focus Features

I’d also like to shout-out Ethan Hawke and Claes Bang’s performances. Neither of them got a lot of screen time, though they managed to exude strong personalities. These performances are also cleverly at odds with how the script portrays them. I’m being vague. But I appreciated their acting choices more in retrospect.

The Northman features exceptionally gorgeous cinematography by Jarin Blaschke! His depiction of the vistas felt almost otherworldly, especially in the climactic action sequence. Somehow he made the land appear cold and unforgiving, yet beautiful and inviting. I want to go there now!

The Northman contains some of the best visual storytelling I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Robert Eggers’ direction. You’d probably understand the plot with muted audio. Maybe I’ll have to test that theory someday. Not to say the dialogue is unimportant. But this is fine cinema. Movies ought to be defined about the look and motion of what we watch. And The Northman is expertly crafted.

The top-notch production design lends a sense of immersion to the proceedings. Maybe I was just fooled by incredible CGI, but most of The Northman‘s environments looked practically rendered to my eyes. And populating these places with extras allowed the sets to feel lived-in. I got the impression Robert Eggers and crew avoided shortcuts and passionately built their world with all the resources they possessed.

This film’s action ranks among the most exhilarating I’ve watched in a long time! These sequences were everything I could have asked for: they were long, focused takes where choreography was clearly visible; nothing felt gratuitous; and it was violence with purpose. Each moment of carnage we see for a reason: to empathize with the horror of characters viewing the same things, show character traits through violence, or to pay off emotionally tense moments.

I love to learn about international cultures and histories, so The Northman also appealed to that side of me. Now I know a bit more of Medieval Scandanavia: their beliefs, religions, groups, and stories. And I have a good jumping-off point for further research. Let’s get more historical epics in this vein, please (for all regions’ histories)!

As for criticism? There were moments the pace felt a little slow. Each sequence was well-handled, but something about the flow was not 100% satisfactory. And I take general issue with movies which feature these grey-ish color palates. I don’t understand why every dramatic Medieval movie has to look the same…

Less is often more. The Northman could have gone over-the-top in a number of ways: action, drama, scope, acting, etc. But it stayed focused, and gave us nearly the perfect amount of each cinematic element. It was ambitious without going too far. And it nailed near everything it tried to do. It only misses my highest rating by a hair because didn’t work for me quite that much. But that’s an arbitrary distinction.

The Northman is a Must See if you love cinematic craft and don’t mind some weird stuff.

What other classic tales from global folklore deserve adaptations? What did you think of The Northman? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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