Daisy Cox suggests The Northman is a dark twist on the fairytale genrewww.freeimages.com with permission

When someone says the words Viking period drama to you, what comes to mind? Probably, if you’re anything like me, something along the lines of a two to three hour slog through various Scandinavian landscapes, punctuated by the occasional screaming topless bloke marching into an incredibly gory snowy tundra to their certain doom. With this in mind, picture me walking into the cinema on a Friday night, knowing next to nothing about the film other than those aforementioned three words. I didn’t have much hope for The Northman, being someone who rarely gets along with period pieces, as well as preferring films on the shorter end of the cinematic spectrum.

“I became increasingly invested in the film’s darkened tapestry of blood-stained revenge”

However, what sparked my initial interest was the involvement of Robert Eggers, the film’s director. Admittedly, I was not one of the people who saw The Lighthouse as particularly groundbreaking, nor did I have a particularly strong response to his debut The VVitch — nevertheless, after watching Eggers’ first few films there is always an undeniable flash of brilliance to his work, that somehow never fully comes to fruition. Take the gripping final act of The Lighthouse — which grinds you down into a quivering wreck — or the incredible build-up of tension achieved in The VVitch. After both films, I always felt that there was something truly spell-binding lurking underneath a more stylised surface. Eggers is a director who exhibits incredible potential within his works; however something (which, for me personally, is usually the dialogue) always brings them down from a truly top tier. So, albeit reticently, I was certainly excited to see his latest offering The Northman.

“The film is a psychological drama on the nature of masculine aggression, and on how ambition can twist and mould an individual”

Little did I know that, in a little under two hours’ time, I’d be sitting with my knees to my chin, clutching my shins to my chest as I watched the final brilliant act of The Northman. I can truly say that I have never been so spellbound by the final thirty minutes of any film I’ve seen in the last ten years — with every gory sword-thrust I gasped, with every scream I jumped, and with every wondrous musical rift (Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough having produced a marvellously textured soundtrack), I became increasingly invested in the film’s darkened tapestry of blood-stained revenge. Although it is rather clichéd to say, The Northman, in essence, is a fairytale of darkly epic proportions. The first act sets up a basic premise of revenge; we follow the journey of the deposed Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he slices and dices his way through countless adversaries — whether deserving of their fate or not — to achieve his destined place on the “tree of kings”, as well as a spot in the mythical realm of Valhalla. So far, so good.

The Northman, in essence, is a fairytale of darkly epic proportions”

However, what I did not anticipate is the beautiful way in which this film subverts your expectations. This is primarily achieved through a range of subtle supernatural elements, which are also notably present in Eggers’ previous films — becoming somewhat of a staple of his. There are also constant shifts in the film’s sinewy plot, which catapult the audience on a whirlwind adventure deep into the dark underbelly of Viking society in 800 AD. The film is a psychological drama on the nature of masculine aggression, and on how ambition can twist and mould an individual into something beyond any recognition of what they once were. Throughout, we see the once-naive Amleth twist into the bloodied, animalistic brute that embarks on this supernatural quest. It is a marvel to see in the hands of Eggers, who peels back this veneer of barbarity and allows the audience to see the lost human soul underneath the blood and grime.


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Skarsgård’s performance is particularly marvellous, as it balances the pure aggressiveness and blood-lust that motivates Amleth’s ambitions with the more vulnerable core of doubt and fear that underlies his journey from the very start of the film. Nevertheless, in contrast to Skarsgård’s role are the equally-brilliant Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman; both of whom play their own wonderfully layered roles within the rolling-Icelandic backdrop of the film. Willem Dafoe’s strangely hypnotising performance, as the seer and jester Heimir, was also a treasure to behold. Dafoe and Bang, respectively, carry the first and second acts of the film. Both work to lead our protagonist down a rabbit-hole of revenge, and guide the audience’s expectations on what darkly prophetic happening will arrive next.

Though there were certainly elements of the film that did not work nearly as well as these four central performances — such as the occasional clunky lines of dialogue (which, admittedly, were less present here than in Egger’s previous works) — as well as the slower parts of the film’s two-hour runtime, The Northman is truly a wonderful thing to behold in modern cinema. A darkly self-contained, supernatural journey of revenge that, as well as leaving gore strewn across the entire cinema, also speaks of a director who truly has become the master of his craft.