The Northman review: Robert Eggers delivers a masterclass in brutal revenge drama

The Northman

The Northman is a visceral, almost nightmarish portrayal of generational revenge. It’s most achingly brilliant scene, however, is a conversation between the son who returns with murder on his mind, and the mother who never quite mourned the man he is trying to avenge. “He endured me because I bore him a son”, Queen Gudrun, played by a somewhat watered-down Nicole Kidman says to a son who accosts her in an eerie sequence that also inducts a kind of sensual paralysis. The son has now seen his mother naked twice, separated by years of exiled suffering. It’s brilliantly twisted, this older-than-Shakespeare tale of Nordic revenge but more than its Hamlet-ian influences The Northman stands out for being clumsily human and almost disturbingly inelegant in the way it goes about the violence.

Amleth, played by Alexander Skarsgard, is born to King Aurvandill, played by an adequate Ethan Hawke. Amleth witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle who later marries the queen, his mother. He returns to his home territory, as a buxom, almost Frankenstein-ish monster all lumber, and no guile. He drags himself through the landscape of his father’s rural kingdom not exactly plotting, but manically exacting revenge. He murders and maims with the saggy quality of a drunk, and he limbers through the day with the humbling sense of being light in the head. Skarsgard is a giant of a man, but here his mannerisms, his squeezed exterior plays off the idea of man who rarely looks like he can be swift enough for murder.

Other than the deliciously twisted equation between the mother and the son, The Northman plays out to template. It isn’t narratively deviant, but it is in syntax, quite unique. None of The Northman’s action scenes feel like action, for they are clumsy choreographies of one man’s dastardly executions of men. Skarskgard, perfect for this role, isn’t the
gladiatorial hunk, but the risible brute who stumbles through his journey, one virtuous but ugly kill after another. There is enough blood and gut to view for the kind of person who likes bloodlust, but in The Northman, Director Robert Eggers brings his typical nihilistic view, a touch of coldness to a story that is in itself, a literary epic.

Compared to Hamlet, Amleth is single-skinned, almost superficial in his anger. So one-tune is his motivation he sees everyone else as fodder, one way or the other. It’s a character that also points to the cyclical nature of violence. He avenges his father, as he predictably would have, but then he leaves behind a trail of blood and death that would inspire a hundred others like him. What makes Skarsgard’s embodiment of the victim different though is his ungainly approach to life. Born out of scars, he lends himself to wounds that are like the hills he draws blood on, quiet and inexpressive. Even his love story with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), feels like a transactional bond between two people who simply cannot bring themselves to emote beyond the bare minimum.

Where The Northman often feels flaky is its obvious trajectory. Only its grammar feels surreal and disquieting. Everything else is largely reminiscent of the oldest revenge tales in the book – witness son, conflicting mother, poisonous uncle and so on. What Eggers, who also directed the minimalistic The Lighthouse, manages to imbibe here is a patently singular energy, the kind that feels restless for just how lazily, and perhaps humane it comes across, all without the ruse of CGI and flattering scale. It all feels organic, from an era of human evolution of course, where people quite possibly thought on their feet as a matter of lifestyle. Today everything is plans, pre-plans and pre-pre-plans that then have to be cancelled. It’s intuitive, and surprisingly effective, despite a film that though violent can often prod and hang onto the axe, as if in limbo.

Of the performances Skarskgard is a shoe-in for the most ungraceful revenge warrior to have ever been cast. Nordic cinema isn’t exactly known for fetishizing the male body, and though Skarskgard is all kinds of handsomely opaque, he never quite becomes the oily diva of 300. Instead, he appears conflictingly even more menacing than the man he is en route to kill. Of all the muted, discomforting realities of this world, it is still the sight of Ameth, almost drunk on murder, ambling his way towards the next kill, that feels scary. After a point he is gargling blood and loins. It’s a nightmare, from which possibly no protagonist can possibly be redeemed, in a disturbing visual narrative through which you’d probably not want to play either the victor or the loser.

The Northman is now streaming on Bookmyshow Stream.

The author writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between. Views expressed are personal.

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