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'The Northman' Review: Fierce, fleshy and defiant filmmaking from Robert Eggers

'The Northman' - Robert Eggers

With a fondness for myths of dark fantasy, American filmmaker Robert Eggers has developed a considerable following in modern cinema, thanks to his brooding horror The Witch and fabled tale of human insanity in The Lighthouse. For an independent creative who has thrived in the realms of independent cinema, his recent promotion to the land of epic Hollywood grandeur for the production of The Northman could’ve felt like a betrayal of identity, if the film itself wasn’t such a monumental triumph. 

Whilst Eggers’ former films operated primarily in one single space, be it a barren homestead or a towering coastal lighthouse, the director organically sidesteps into uncharted waters for The Northman, exploring the outer reaches of a mythical world that has previously merely been hinted at. Scaling rocky hilltops, stormy seas and impossible landscapes, Eggers’ Scandinavian revenge story is one ripped from ancient mythology, updated with contemporary spectacle.

Based on the legend of Amleth, which was later appropriated for Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Eggers’ tale is one of deceit, revenge and treachery that stems after the murder of a young boy’s father, the king of a mythical land. Narrowly escaping the clutches of his persecutors, the young boy, Amleth, sails across the stormy seas screaming to the gods as he promises to avenge his father’s death and save his mother from harm. 

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Catching up to him several years later, the chipper young boy has transformed into a gruff warrior, played by Alexander Skarsgård, a quiet, morose individual whose eyes are still glazed with the grief of his father’s death. Still in pursuit of the killer, it’s not until Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) that his fate for revenge seems truly sealed, joining her on a voyage that will lead him to his long-awaited grail. 

Stained with blood and grime, Eggers’ Northman feels like the product of its environment, creating an authentic blockbuster that draws from long-established, fantastical legend whilst rooting the tale in a convincing, brutal reality. Straddling the thin line of magical make-believe and myth, the director and Icelandic writing partner Sjón, create a compelling reality where otherworldly creatures seamlessly inhabit a world dominated by the flesh and fallibility of humanity.

Bringing eerie mysticism and engaging magical folklore, the likes of Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Willem Dafoe and Björk take to the stage with their own idiosyncrasies, injecting gleeful fun into the film’s otherwise po-faced sincerity. Never taking away from the story at hand, these fantastical moments are perfectly slotted into the mythological tale, even posing the question to the audience that such moments may simply be the idealistic invention of the protagonist’s own will for existential revenge. 

Truly, there are few cinematic fantasy adventures that can compare to the scope of Robert Eggers’ achievements, harking back to the quality of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, whilst surpassing the disposable popcorn thrills of Game of Thrones. Crafting a cinematic spell of enchanting wonder, Eggers has created a fierce, fleshy tale of carnal revenge that stakes a challenge into the heart of modern cinema, daring the industry to match his wild vision.

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