THE NORTHMAN (2022)

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth
  • Release Date: 07/04/2022
  • Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy
  • Director: Robert Eggers

A psychedelic revenge saga that will leave you exasperated with its action and drama

— Ambar Chatterjee

The Northman chronicles the journey of prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who witnesses as a child the brutal murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir then proceeds to take Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) by force. Amleth narrowly escapes with his life clutched between his teeth after surviving a brutal hand-to-hand combat with one of Fjölnir’s cronies and promises to return as a grown man to avenge his father, kill his uncle, and save his mother in exactly that order.

We meet Amleth years later and now he has metamorphosed into a towering berserker. We see him annihilate an entire settlement with the help of his other berserker friends. It is here that he learns about Fjölnir’s whereabouts who has since his attack on Amleth’s family been reduced to a landlord after he was unable to retain the land that he grabbed after killing Amleth’s father. Amleth masquerades as a slave bound for Fjölnir and sails off to deliver poetic justice to the man. On this voyage, he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) who wants to burst out of the slavery that she has been subjected to due to Amleth’s raid on her settlement. The two form an uneasy alliance and promise to be of help to each other’s cause. Things go according to plan and Amleth is able to find a foothold in Fjölnir’s farm. He gets closer and closer to killing the man but before that, he must meet his mother and announce his arrival. It is at this juncture that Amleth is made privy to information that changes his life and his future forever.  

The promotional material of the film screamed of it being a generic revenge saga with exceptionally well-done action set pieces and boasting of a leading man who looked supernaturally buff and filled with such intensity that it would easily undermine a raging tiger. The Northman has all of this, but it is only the first 15-20 minutes of the film. From the moment Amleth learns of his uncle’s location and sets out on the journey, the film changes from being an in-your-face action-drama to a psychedelic cerebral ballad that borders on being surreal and realistic at the same time. 

There are many elements in the film that one cannot confirm happened in reality. Amleth’s father takes him to the “fool” of his kingdom to be initiated by a ceremony that not only feels otherworldly but also fills the young Amleth with visions and knowledge of a future that he leaps towards throughout the film. This is also the time when he touches his father’s blood and has visions of his entire bloodline. This is an important moment in the film as it is reused later to impact Amleth’s decision and make him do something that leads to the stunning and emotionally draining climax of the film that unfolds at the base of an erupting volcano. 

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor- Joy in a still

After Amleth reaches’ Fjölnir’s farm, he lays his hands on a legendary sword that can only be unsheathed at night or at the base of the great erupting volcano referred to as the “Gates of hell”. This aspect of the sword results in some interesting and tense moments in the film. Since it cannot be unsheathed during the day, Amleth has to fight an entire gang of Fjölnir’s men with a sword that is sheathed. This not only makes the battle that much more difficult for him who otherwise would have pulverized the men in his way, but it also leads to an unlikely finale to the battle.

The association between Amleth and Olga that starts off as a result of necessities quickly transforms into something eternal, pristine, and romantic. The transformation of the relationship is documented wonderfully by Robert Eggers using economic yet poignant dialogues between the two that are characterized by heightened emotions and uncanny involvement. With every interaction between the two, the audiences are given clear indications of how close they were getting. If that was not enough, the character of Olga is portrayed as someone who is not a pushover. She is a self-sufficient and dangerous killer who uses her innocent face to disarm and kill soldiers during the initial berserker raid that Amleth had led. Thus, when a character like that is shown falling for a man for reasons more than momentary benefits, those very reasons are reaffirmed and given the necessary dramatic weightage to have the necessary impact. 

The biggest shocker and mind-numbing twist of the film come when Amleth finally meets his mother. Eggers was evidently building up to it from the very beginning and he successfully delivers the maximum punch that a sequence of this nature should have been able to deliver. This proves to be a rather long sequence, but it so violently oscillates between different moments and realizations that it proves to be the most exhilarating sequence of the entire film. It is perhaps even more breakneck than the action sequences of the film since it drains you so much in terms of emotional and dramatic payoff. By the end of this sequence, Amleth is filled with such a sense of dread and haunting pain that he goes ahead and does things that make him no less of a monster than his uncle. One must add that he was not someone who had a clean conscience to start with as he had committed unimaginable horror to women, children, and others during his time as a berserker. 

This is easily Alexander Skarsgård’s best performance to date and it will establish him as an actor who can be taken seriously in terms of acting. He has transformed into a monster of a man who at the same time has not forgotten to use his facial muscles to bring about the necessary nuances to the expressions of a deeply troubled and torn character who is at the brink of an emotional collapse. He fits the character so much that after a while he disappears behind the skin of the character. He is able to bring the right vibes to moments that range between moments of serene calm and unheard-of violence and mayhem. Eggers was aware of his strengths, and he successfully uses them to deliver a compounded impact in tandem with Skarsgård’s physical transformation.   

Nichole Kidman in a still

The Northman is not a run-of-the-mill revenge drama. Its sensibility is deeply rooted in the metaphysical and the degenerating human mind and moral code when faced with pain and suffering. It has fantastic performances that hold your attention. It has limited but stunning action sequences that are choreographed, shot and edited with such panache that they will definitely disarm you. The first one-take action sequence takes the cake for being the best bit of prehistoric action that we have seen in a long time. The film’s culmination is apt and leaves you completely satisfied. The only flip side is in the fact that it might not appeal to the ones who are looking for a simpler and less cerebral revenge drama as the film demands your attention and one has to watch it keenly. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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