ANCIENT mythologies and “pagan” beliefs from before the spread of Abrahamic religions through colonisers have always had a peculiar draw to them.
Larger-than-life deities, from colourful pantheons, wielding thunder, iron, life and death from the Heavens above and the Hells below, are somehow still able to tap into the primal parts of the modern human brain.
This is possibly owed to our far ancestors, who were much closer to these beliefs, and it might even explain why the concept of “superheroes” continues to be appealing.
It is this fascination that has allowed the mass capitalisation of Greek mythology into various forms of media, such as video games, comic books and films.
Though video games and comic books are able to run wild with the mythologies they adapt, the same can’t be said for film.
In the film world, there is a large tendency to water down these mythologies into easily consumed, family-friendly pieces of entertainment, such as everything related to Thor in the Marvel Studios films.
Finding a studio or filmmaker that risks going against the grain is rare, until The Northman.
Cycles of violence
Most mythologies, in their purest form, are very violent, crude and more often than not, morally bankrupt.
No one understands this better than director Robert Eggers, who is no tourist in the above, having previously written and directed The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Adapted from a Scandinavian legend and Norse mythology, The Northman tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) seeking to avenge his father, King Aurvandill’s (Ethan Hawke) death at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and to save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
Like any revenge film, The Northman’s narrative is deceptively simple and straightforward.
The fratricide and regicide occur within the first 20 minutes, and The Northman, paved with blood, corpses, sacrifices for gods, and limb-shaped-murals is then off on its tale of vengeance led by Skarsgård’s Amleth.
Despite being in a ton of films, even blockbusters like The Legend of Tarzan and Godzilla vs. King Kong, Skarsgård never really made much of a presence nor impact as a dramatic actor, until The Northman.
Fallen from the throne, spurned by the death of his father, loss of his mother and robbed of where he belonged, Skarsgård’s Amleth would live a life as a Viking berserker, moulded by the violent landscape and tempered by the fires smouldering in his heart.
Skarsgård conveys the weight and fury of Amleth with utter physicality and verbose ferality that easily propels his performance as the best of his career, and as one of the best this year.
It is almost fitting that Skarsgård finally makes his mark in cinema in the year that films make a return to the silver screen.
At the gates of Hel
The Northman makes it clear that every film by Eggers is a passion project.
Bringing back cinematographer Jarin Blaschke who worked with him on The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers dazzles with his Viking revenge tale.
The first action sequence in The Northman has a group of berserkers attack and pillage a settlement, which is filmed in one-shot – or rather, is cleverly edited as such – by Blaschke.
Owing to how this is the first time Eggers has directed anything on this scale, the combat is slightly clunky, which is thankfully carried by the set design and overall choreography of everything else on screen.
Other scenes, particularly those at the night, are spectacular, even if nothing is going on, and when something is going – like the climactic final sequence – The Northman goes just as hard in vision, effort and execution.
The film’s use of CGI is sparse and largely unnoticeable due through the smart use of cinematography and lighting, and the scenes with noticeable CGI are rather articulate (and arguably look better than more expensive films), despite The Northman’s modest blockbuster budget.
Much like how Skarsgård acts and fights like a man possessed by unseen spectres of wolves, The Northman is a film possessed by old Norse gods wanting their tales and presence told under the impressive direction and tactile vision of Eggers.