With The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers established himself as one of the most surreal and engaging visionaries working today. Of course, those movies were made for $4 million and 11 million, respectively. The Northman’s budget has been estimated between $60 million and $90 million, easily making it the most expensive film of Eggers’ career thus far. In some cases, more money can take away what makes an artist so distinctive. David Lynch’s Dune is one example. Thankfully, this isn’t the case for Eggers. You never get the sense that the studios were breathing down Eggers’ neck, making sure their money is being put towards something mainstream. Rather than comprise what makes Eggers unique, it’s been amplified on every level.
Alexander Skarsgård is another talent who’s gone through a fascinating evolution. Once upon a time, he was best known for playing a nude vampire and a male model who gets blown up in a gasoline fight. He gave the most complex performance as an abusive husband on Big Little Lies. He firmly establishes himself as a leading man in The Northman as Amleth, a Viking warrior who loses his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and kingdom to his backstabbing uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth returns years later to avenge his father and take back what’s his. One might think that The Northman is Eggers’ answer to Hamlet, but his inspiration runs even deeper than Shakespeare.
Amleth stemmed from Scandinavian folklore, predating Hamlet. It’s believed that Amleth’s story inspired Shakespeare when he was scribing that immortal tragedy. That said, “Shakespearean” is still the best word to describe The Northman. Eggers’ film has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean epic: a fallen kingdom, witchcraft, a deceitful uncle, and a vengeful hero. Anyone can adapt Shakespeare, however. Only Eggers could make The Northman, albeit with some help from co-screenwriter Sjón.
The film earns the Eggers seal of approval with an otherworldly atmosphere, motifs you can spend days analyzing, and Anya Taylor-Joy. Reuniting with the director who put her on the map, Taylor-Joy delivers another captivating performance as Olga, a Slavic slave and sorceress who captures Amleth’s heart. Olga aids Amleth in his plight to destroy Fjölnir, although she fears the man she loves will destroy himself in the process. Even if Amleth succeeds, there’s no longer much of a kingdom to reclaim. Fjölnir already lost almost everything to the Harald of Norway, now living on a farm. Amleth still won’t rest until he’s taken whatever Fjölnir has left. This includes Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún, played by Nicole Kidman in the film’s most unsettling performance. Most unsettling of all, Kidman has now played Skarsgård’s wife and mother.
As Amleth becomes blinded by revenge, Eggers delivers a visual experience that we can’t look away from. Jarin Blaschke has served as the cinematographer on all of Eggers’ features. He outdoes himself in The Northman, capturing the story’s beauty and brutality against an Icelandic backdrop. The production design encompasses the grand scope that this story deserves. It builds to a masterfully executed climax draped in hellish silhouettes. It’ll be interesting to see if Eggers continues down the historical epic route like Ridley Scott. Even if this is his lone entry in the genre, Eggers will have more than left his mark.