‘The Northman’ review: refined for big-budget standards
“The Northman is like an independent artist who is finally recognized for his unknown music and who signs with a rich record company”
This is a spoiler-free review.
How to make a big budget auteur film?
This is the question that Robert Eggers The man from the north faces early in its historic $90 million saga. Few directors can afford the financial means to explore carnal and macabre portrayals of Norse mythology, let alone have the privilege of top performers like Nicole Kidman articulating lines in Old English for the sake of historical accuracy. Luckily for Eggers, the expressionist horror period of The witch and the transgressive eroticism of Lighthouse gave him carte blanche to create a high-octane adventure that puts other studio films to shame.
A totally different beast from his previous two films, The man from the north does not attempt to elevate horror or dismantle fetish fantasies. It’s a fully-formed exercise in realigning successful images as they should be: big, visually stunning, and empowered by a single vision. “Widely appealing” is less an insult to the film and more to its association with the homogenized cinematic climate it traverses. It’s easy to interpret a lack of finesse when the story’s distant relative is Hamlet, and the action seems replicated from other master plays (and even television, see The iron Throne long shots), but these evaluations neglect the attention to detail specific to this film, which is sorely lacking in films built in committee.
In an attempt to strike a balance in said cinematic climate, Eggers mentioned that he had Gladiator and Brave heart in mind. He should have re-edited the final cut so as not to “require a master’s degree in Viking history” when viewing. The result is a fusion of two worlds: the slow, meticulous pace of art house films and the mind-numbing excess of mainstream action. It’s a well-balanced meal that anyone can chew, which makes it prone to lows but also unimaginable highs.
Alexander Skarsgård plays Prince Amleth, son of King Aurvandill (played by Ethan Hawke) and heir to the kingdom’s throne. At a very young age, he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang), the king’s brother. This prompts Amleth to flee his home, pledging revenge on the usurper, saving his mother Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman), and fulfilling what was foretold to him by the king’s jester, Heimir (played by Willem Dafoe). In what looks like the film’s most edited sequence, the initial setup is surprisingly simplified, leaving little room to dwell on the aforementioned characters.
It’s no surprise that the next scene is a bloodbath filled with ambitious tracking shots and expert choreography. The action sequence is a microcosm of Jarin Blaschke’s ambitious cinematography and its ability to match the brooding atmosphere of the Icelandic legend. There’s a lot of flavor in the middle of the film, sometimes dredged in grays and blues, and other times only brightened by the orange emanating from the natural fire. It’s probably not controversial to say it’s a beautiful movie.
Years later, as a berserker, Amleth finds himself ravaging cities with other Vikings. He meets Olga (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the Slavic slaves occupying the land of the Rus. It offers an alternate life for the vengeful prince, a breath of normalcy, and a return to the ordinary world in terms of the hero’s journey. On top of that, Taylor-Joy offers little to the table and is relegated to her primary attributes of benevolence and mysticism, traits that are undoubtedly true to legend but unfounded by modern standards. Björk also returns after a 17-year absence from acting to play a seer who prophesies Amleth’s revenge in a brief but eerie sequence.
The film’s highlight is Skarsgård’s energetic turn into the lead role, but one underrated aspect is the vulnerability it allows to fuel his performance. Amleth is a soiled character, adamant in the face of mud and blood and blinded by the wickedness of fate. Each guttural cry from him is accompanied by a contemplative search for purpose, a back and forth between a life of vengeance and a life of freedom. He decides to be chained in order to confront his now exiled uncle and witness the noble life that has been snatched away from him. One can palpably feel the longing and desperation that defined his adulthood. Skarsgård plays the role with the recklessness of a ruthless wolf, but beneath the headdress hides a broken child who is alone in the world.
Sjón, an Icelandic novelist, joins Eggers to write the screenplay, which is quite a play in the same way as Joel Coen Macbeth’s Tragedy was – but on steroids. One of the creative liberties they’ve taken for the Norse story is the inclusion of a werewolf-inspired coming-of-age ritual in a dark cavern, and it plays out as bizarrely as it sounds. appear. The mythology in the world has a serene, factual quality to it, as if visions of arterial family trees and blue-eyed warriors riding horses to Valhalla were commonplace in this universe. This is part of the charm of the script and, by extension, of the visual language that conveys it.
The man from the north it’s as if an independent artist was finally recognized for his unknown music and signed with a rich record company. With a modest budget and the pressure to appease a larger crowd, the budding entertainer faces an even tougher task than ever. Yet despite being in uncharted territory where sacrificing creative vision is the name of the game, the crew of this sprawling epic proves that with raw strength and ambitious energy, a balance can be struck that honors the best that compromise has to offer. – Rappler.com