BY BOBBY STYLES
The man from the north is the latest film from idiosyncratic filmmaker Robert Eggers. Set in Iceland in the year 914, it’s a brutal revenge epic about a young Viking prince on a mission to rescue a loved one and avenge the murder of another. The plot is based on the story of Manya Danish text written by Saxo Grammaticus around 1200.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it was William Shakespeare’s inspiration for his 1601 play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eggers became interested in this source material because he became familiar with writing The Bard at an early age; his father being a college professor who focused on the works of Shakespeare. This film shows the timelessness of a well-told tale, intriguing modern audiences as much as they did in 1200 and 1601.
This unconventional film is filled with brutal violence and beautiful imagery. It’s weird in all the best ways, and often breaks expectations. The story is about sorcery, legacy, fate, revenge and an incredible fight scene on the edge of a volcano. The savagery on display in the film portrays human nature as barbaric, and even though it is set over a thousand years ago, the extent of violence in its society is not dissimilar to ours.
The idea of revenge is one of the driving forces behind the violence in the film. Prince Amleth seeks revenge and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. He describes himself as having an “icy river of hate running through his veins”. In many ways, this film turns the idea of a revenge tale on its head and challenges preconceptions about such stories. For example, the film explores the disconnect that occurs when someone tries to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
The Northman also examines the opposing forces of heart and mind, and the conflict that often arises between what one thinks and what one feels. At one point, Amleth states that his “heart only knows vengeance”. Knowledge is a quality often associated with the mind, not the heart, so the fact that Amleth thinks with his heart shows his disjointed view of reality.
The clash between heart and mind is reflected through the repetitive violence depicted in the film, with several characters being killed by beheading or stabbing in the heart. One of the most surreal scenes takes the viewer inside one of the character’s hearts. The contents include several human skeletons floating inside.
The dichotomy between heart and mind fuels the biggest play in the entire film. Opposing forces complement each other and require each other’s existence. At one point, Amleth says he lives “a life of death” and when faced with choosing between kindness for his loved ones or hatred for his enemies, he says “I choose both”. It’s a film that allows opposing ideas to coexist with equal importance.
After all, this is a movie that often sees humans behaving more like wild animals than beings capable of rational thought. Amleth in particular seems to be part dog, starting with an early scene with him as a young man taking part in an inheritance ceremony. He is asked to pretend to be a dog as he swallows a hallucinogenic potion. Amleth exhibits dog-like qualities during later scenes in the film, showing his beast nature overcoming any sense of reason that might exist within him.
Robert Eggers is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and The Northman sees him expanding in scope, scale and budget. Fortunately, his unique style as a director remains intact. He has no interest in making a movie set in modern times. His films are all set in the past, and he is meticulously obsessed with depicting each time period with painstaking precision.
Research is an important part of Eggers’ process, and he has hired archaeologist Neil Price and literary scholar Katrin Fridriksdottir as historical consultants on The Northman. Eggers sees the atmosphere of a film as an “accumulation of detail”, so when preparing each project, no aspect is too small or insignificant. To get inside the heads of his characters, and to help the actors do the same, he makes sure that everything from clothing to architecture is as accurate to time and place as possible.
Eggers doesn’t hold his audience’s hand. Instead, it throws the viewer into an unknown world and challenges them to catch up. He makes no effort to make the characters more palatable to modern audiences, refusing to bend them to our contemporary perspective. We are often left perplexed and intrigued by their decisions.
The gestation of this film took place over a long period. Lead actor Alexander Skarsgård had wanted to make a Vikings film for over a decade and approached Eggers with the idea. Eggers had yet to plan his next film, but had recently traveled to Iceland and fallen in love with the scenery, culture and atmosphere. He saw this film as an opportunity to work with the talented Skarsgård while exploring his new found love for all things Icelandic.
The film’s story began to take shape after Eggers met Iceland’s most famous citizen: legendary songwriter Björk. They became friends and she introduced him to Sjón, an Icelandic author whose books focus on witchcraft. The two hit it off and ended up co-writing the screenplay for The Northman together. Björk also plays a memorable role in the film as a Seer, a magical being who gives Amleth a prophecy. She looks amazing in this brief scene, her first cinematic performance since her masterful work in Dancer in the Dark (2000).
The Northman is filled with other actors who do so much with little screen time. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke are truly wonderful as Amleth’s mother and father, and although they barely appear in the film, their performances are some of the best ever. they have ever given. Kidman in particular shows a startling intensity that has always been talked about but never displayed. This movie taps into a terrifying villainy beneath the surface and makes you wonder what else this talented actor is hiding.
Another notable performance is Willem Dafoe as Heimir the Fool. Dafoe facilitates the aforementioned hallucinogenic ritual scene early on, and it’s easily the best scene in the film. As the potion warps reality, Eggers takes the audience with him, feeling the disorientation with the characters as a deliciously off-balance Dafoe heightens the sense of reality slipping away.
The acting in the film cannot be discussed without mentioning Alexander Skarsgård. The 45-year-old Swedish actor and eldest son of legendary actor Stellan Skarsgãrd, has amassed a collection of great performances during his brief career so far. His portrait of Amleth is certainly one of his best. This is not surprising, as his character deals with legacy and fate, which suits a man following in his father’s footsteps as a highly regarded actor.
The Northman is one of the most beautifully shot movies in recent memory, and it’s thanks to the collaboration between Robert Eggers and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke. This is their third feature film together, with 2019’s incomparable The Lighthouse earning Blaschke an Oscar nomination.
The Northman sees Eggers and Blaschke once again create an otherworldly atmosphere with images they seem to conjure up out of thin air. Like the mysticism presented in this story, these two are magical beings. The creativity and technical expertise they have shown with this film is absolutely astounding.
The Northman was filmed in a very unusual way, especially for an action-packed Viking revenge movie. Instead of shooting over 20 shots every day, like most movies, this one was only doing about three to four shots a day. Most of the individual shots in this film are quite long and required extensive choreography from the actors as well as the cameraman. The most notable of these long takes is the first Viking raid; one of The Northman’s most memorable scenes. Shot in a single four-minute take, it took the team 25 attempts before it was successful. Eggers and Blaschke prefer to film in long takes because it helps keep viewers immersed in the world they so diligently crafted.
The Northman is a film that takes its audience on a journey into a world they would otherwise never have access to. This film is a time machine and a window into a dreamlike hellscape. It delights while instilling fear. Robert Eggers and his team have created something spectacular and one of the best movies of the year so far.
Bobby Styles studied film at UCLA and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches intermediate and advanced video production courses at Monache High School’s Multimedia and Technology Academy. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday.