The Northman was one of my most anticipated films this year, so it’s disappointing to report that, on first viewing, it just didn’t click for me.
I loved Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and while I’m not so fond of The Lighthouse, it is still beautifully made and actually very engaging in the first two acts. Unfortunately, The Northman has a similar problem for me. The cinematography is stunning at times and the research on Viking culture is impeccable as expected. There are moments of terrific acting. Alexander Skarsgard really embraces the animalistic side of his character. Nicole Kidman gets a shining moment. Anya Taylor-Joy does a lot with the time she’s given as Olga of the Birch Forest.
It’s no spoiler to note that this movie is based on the original Nordic story of Amleth, the basis of Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet. So some of the story beats you know going in.
I’m no Hamlet expert, so I’ll illustrate my issue using another Hamlet stand-in: The Lion King.
To me, where The Northman really fails is the beginning of the movie, which sets the stakes for the remaining chapters. It opens with Amleth excited about the return of his father (Ethan Hawke) from war. The two get a little time to bond interspersed between strange Viking rituals before Amleth watches his uncle Fjolnir kill his father before his very eyes.
I don’t think the intro does enough to put us in Amleth’s perspective to care enough about Amleth’s father (I can’t even remember his name). Whereas Mufasa’s death was a gut-punch that still chokes people up today, the death of Amleth’s father feels more like a plot point to set the revenge storyline in motion.
In The Lion King, you feel the horror of Simba watching his father die, you crave revenge against Scar. In The Northman, I didn’t feel that. Without the weight of that moment, every other beat of the movie passes without the gravity needed to propel the story forward. I constantly felt like each development was just a checkpoint to get to the (admittedly awesome) ending.
At one point Bjork shows up as a witchy figure to tell Amleth about his fate. But why though? The timing of it just fell flat for me. The relationship between Amleth and Olga feels a bit rushed and forced as well. It doesn’t really have time to develop.
There’s a small turn that I won’t spoil, and it somewhat works thanks in large part to Kidman, but it’s missing the weight of us being more attached to Amleth’s parents. I spent most of the movie thinking “OK, they’re telling me I should feel this now” instead of just feeling it.
Still, Eggers’ artistry shines through in every shot of the film and there is truly some epic and beautiful stuff. I am going to rewatch it and hope it clicks for me, as I’d like nothing more than to change my opinion on this. I will still always show up for an Eggers film, but this one just wasn’t for me.