The Northman is a cold and unsatisfying take on the Shakespearean epic

This frigid attempt at a Shakespearean story is best left out in the cold.

This review originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.

Within the opening minutes of The Northman, it becomes clear that someone made a mistake. The mistake is not necessarily with the movie itself either. For whatever it’s worth, Robert Eggers, director of recent critical darlings like The Witch and The Lighthouse, appears to have full reign to achieve whatever vision he’s looking for.

No, whoever made the mistake clearly worked for the marketing department. For a movie this bloody and graphic, with so little to say about its violence as it moves along, it’s baffling how the studio ever decided to market it by blanketing the airwaves with ad spots as if it were a blockbuster in the making.

Sadly, as this dreary tale of vengeance trudges forward, that mysterious marketing decision remains the most intriguing aspect of The Northman.

The story opens abruptly. King Aurvandil returns to his Norse village and his family after a successful conquest, albeit suffering from a grievous wound. They all greet him enthusiastically, especially his son Amleth. Seeing his own mortality reflected alongside the innocence of the heir to his throne however, Aurvandil decides to take Amleth to perform a ritual ceremony to establish his manhood.

Eggers directs the ritual with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with a movie striving to reach a higher level of art form. It’s almost as if he wants to direct a Viking’s Citizen Kane. Regardless of what’s said on screen, the cinematography rarely falls short as a result. Its fire-lit shots are dizzying and uncomfortable with a litany of visual tricks littered throughout. Creative camera angles and framing techniques are abundant and remain a constant throughout the film thereafter.

During the ceremony, Amleth discovers his place in his family’s lineage in a rather disturbing dreamlike manner. He also swears to avenge his father whenever he meets the end the fates have decided for him.  

Right after, off goes the king’s head. Amleth escapes this morbidly convenient plot development, but not before seeing that the perpetrator of the heinous act is his father’s own brother, Fjolnir. He briefly returns to his home village to find it brutally massacred and destroyed with his mother, the queen, alive but carried off by her brother-in-law.

Amleth renews his vow of vengeance before the movie jumps forward to “years later” to show a muscle-bound adult Amleth destroying and pillaging a different village in graphic detail in the exact same manner as his uncle. The purpose of this isn’t clear except to maybe show some sort of twisted tragedy about the circumstances.

If that setup and execution doesn’t sound appealing, then The Northman is certainly not the movie for you. Amleth’s journey of gory retribution is just that and nothing more. Alexander Skarsgard screams his way through scene after scene of the stuff with little reason for the audience to care beyond reaching a merciful ending.

In a way, it’s a formula that could have worked had The Northman actually been enjoyable to watch. Eggers clearly strives to make this a Shakespearean epic rather than Conan the Barbarian, however. Instead of seeing a swaggering Schwarzenegger chop through villains, moviegoers get a depressed Skarsgard who all too rarely receives a decent action piece until the final act.

While the plot may unabashedly borrow from Hamlet in its setup, the greatest tragedy about the movie is sitting through its over two-hour runtime with only some uniquely constructed imagery to hold any interest. The story never expands beyond its initial premise and tragedy, nor does it ever deviate to make any grander statements when the options to do so naturally arise. The main characters are unlikable with almost no emotional attachment developed for them until the final act. The film is basically content reveling in being miserable for misery’s sake.

It’s a tone that does no favors for the movie’s strong cast either. Skarsgard does the best with what he’s given, which isn’t much. The film quite literally characterizes Amleth as an emotionless killing machine. As a result, the little emotion Skarsgard shows near the ending only serves to hint at the power his performance could have had with a more generous plot.

The same is largely true about Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Amleth’s love interest, Olga, or about Nicole Kidman’s role as the queen. Luckily, unlike Skarsgard, both receive some fully developed moments near the conclusion that allow them to truly showcase their acting chops. Their skills go a long way towards selling an otherwise predictable finale.

It’s a shame that their performances are too little and too late to save the movie as a whole. The end result is a film that only succeeds at missing nearly all of its marks. It’s neither appropriately exciting nor dramatic. Its richly shot scenes are little more than a distraction for the eyes in an otherwise depressing slog. In short, The Northman is nothing but a downer.

Spotlight Score: 3/10


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