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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'The Northman' Review: Alexander Skarsgård Goes Full Viking For Robert Eggers' Historical Epic

Alexander Skarsgård shirtless, bloody and wearing a wolf's head
Focus Features

Time to release your inner wolf for a revenge story, in the name of saving someone while getting derailed by the brutal nature of killing until you don't exactly know who actually should be saved. That is the essence of director-writer Robert Eggers' third film The Northman, co-written with Sjón, a historical epic inspired by legend of Amleth.

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth (Oscar Novak playing him as a child), a son and heir of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) who watches his father be killed and his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), being captured. Behind this betrayal and seizing of the kingdom is Amleth's uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), on whom Amleth declares vengeance after managing to escape the town. Later as an adult and part of a viking troop, Amleth begins making his way back to save his mother and kill Fjölnir, while striking a connection with Slavic sorceress Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) after raiding her village.

Perhaps the most shocking factor of all of this is that Eggers' handprint is just as apparent as in his previous two, equally stellar films, despite that The Northman is a modern blockbuster in scope and budget. Level of intricacy and attention to detail is still there and the movie is all better for it. Craig Lathrop's production design and Linda Muir's costumes suck you in right in the first few frames as everything feels tangible and specific, while still playing a crucial part in lives of the characters whether that is to show their stature or to give everyone something to do, which in turn gives depth to Eggers' frames.

Familiar collaborator in DoP Jarin Blaschke also provides value to that as the camera work is extremely versatile, shooting not only the stunt-heavy action in long takes, but also doing that for intense character moments which give the viewer a clear idea of the landscapes and spaces where Amleth and rest roam (don't worry, there are also striking steady shots that have carefully constructed light and shadows).

That singular touch also extends to the overall storytelling mixed with performance styles. More straightforward revenge tale starts to slowly fade away as mythical and otherworldly elements get introduced—whether that's what Olga brings or Seeress' (Björk) prophetic influence—mirroring the near-blind quest that Amleth is on. Skarsgård is terrifyingly believable in the role, portraying superbly the mindless rage and commitment to something higher than the man himself.

While Amleth's relationships with Olga and his mother could have used a bit more warmth initially (maybe some of that is on cutting room floor) to invoke a bigger emotional resonance, it's not because of the actors' skills as Taylor-Joy, Kidman and Bang are also terrific in their roles. Good thing is that Eggers finds the kind of bliss that hasn't been as prevalent in his previous films, with The Northman's ending which examines revenge and violence more openly, too. Composer duo Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough's intense final cue guides the audience to a much more mysterious place than what was given in the beginning.

Smileys: Production design, costume design, Alexander Skarsgård, directing, cinematography

Frowneys: Minor flaws with characterisation

Gates of Hell No are for those who wish to keep their clothes on.


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