/ 13 July 2023

‘The Northman’ is brutal but beautiful

Northman The 2023 (1)
Nordic warrior: Alexander Skarsgård plays Prince Amleth in the film ‘The Northman’. Photo: Courtesy MultiChoice

The latest addition to Showmax’s collection of international blockbusters is the 2022 film The Northman, starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, the film’s Viking protagonist. 

But a fair warning, the film is shrouded in chaotic violence that is potentially the most accurate depiction of Viking culture in modern cinema.

At its core, The Northman is Amleth’s revenge story. He seeks to conquer his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered his father. 

Through The Northman, director Robert Eggers transports his audience into the harsh and brutal world of the Vikings, immersing us in a rich diorama of Nordic mythology, love, betrayal and, of course, bloodshed. 

From the first scene, we are exposed to the brutally stark beauty of Scandinavian landscapes and the eerie atmosphere of the film’s various settings. 

Eggers’ reputation for meticulous attention to historical accuracy shines through in the intricate costumes, detailed production design and stunning practical effects.

The Northman is blatant about the brutal, nihilistic reality of ancient Viking territories. Within the first 20 minutes, one may find the film a bit jarring, but as you settle in, it’s easy to accept the complexity of the characters and the building tension. 

The Northman definitely is a dark revenge story but tells it in a different way. Instead of giving audiences what they are used to — a kind of egocentric retelling of Nordic lands in 914AD, while speaking to our 21st century civility — Eggers’s cast of characters are not relatable folk, because they’re Vikings. 

Even though the characters are not designed to be relatable, they are complex. 

Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) is cunning and manipulative but Anya Taylor-Joy’s fake (and apparently) Scottish accent is so ambiguous you can tell she is just acting. 

Skarsgård’s commanding presence and silent intensity effectively convey his character’s internal struggle and relentless pursuit of justice. 

The Icelandic singer Björk’s role as the Slav Witch is so whimsically dark, it felt as if the role was written for her. 

After giving audiences films such as The Witch and The Lighthouse, the pressure was clearly on Eggers to present fans with another historically accurate film that gains a cult following. 

The Northman may stand on its own in Eggers’ portfolio of feature films, and sets itself apart from other historic tales, but it follows the modern filmmaking handbook which, for some reason, gives directors permission to make films with a more than two-hour run time. 

With that length, it is easy to assume the film is an audaciously assured production, since so many other directors are indulging themselves via films with extra-long duration, meaty cinematography and over-the-top production budgets.

Despite soon learning this is a film about violent Vikings, a lot of elements to the film remain unexpected. We expect the brutality of Viking warriors but the amount of magic, mysticism and mythology, which adds to the lore of The Northman, was impressive. 

These Vikings, like Amleth, are on their own quests with their own moral codes. Eggers’ attention to detail is evident in the rituals, traditions and religious beliefs depicted throughout the film, which adds depth and authenticity to the story.

The Northman is not a film for the faint of heart. It delves into the darkest corners of the human psyche, showcasing the depths to which individuals are willing to go in the pursuit of revenge. The violent sequences are graphic and unflinching, but they serve a purpose in confirming the harsh realities of the Viking world.