Director Robert Eggers has recently given himself the reputation of making arthouse style horror movies, with the likes of The Witch, and The Lighthouse. With The Northman, he seem to be moving towards the more conventional Hollywood block buster style movie, abate with a smaller budget and scale. Judging from the film’s cast, perhaps most of the budget allocated went to pay for its illustrious stars. As a result, The Northman comes across as being more commercial than his previous efforts although, he still manages to infuse elements of his arthouse background into the film.
The Northman is set in 10th century Iceland. This poses a challenge in itself in its delivery of authentic costumes, props, sets and location. And here is where the limited budget shows as the story takes place largely within a small area. Do not expect to see any large scale Viking battles. There is only one battle that was mentioned which is takes place off screen, and another smaller scale attack on a village. That attack scene was at least masterfully captured in its brutality and oddly, beauty. Although the film was shot in Northern Ireland instead of Iceland, the ethereal landscape succeeded in creating an untouched world. There was one life-sized Viking boat at the beginning but this was brief and not given much prominence.
Where The Northman excel was with its star studded cast. Its main star Alexander Skarsgard (remember him as vampire Eric in TV’s True Blood?) was clearly the flag bearer as he transformed himself physically to his role as the savage Amleth, a Viking prince who devotes his life to avenge the death of his father. His beast like behaviour is contrasted with some more tender moments when he shows his protective side with the women in his life. Anya Taylor-Joy is largely wasted here in a rather bland role of the remale interest, while Nicole Kidman fares a bit better with one or two more memorable scenes as the mother. Ethan Hawke was unrecognisable under heavy facial hair and I didn’t even realised he was in the movie until the credits rolled at the end. The inclusion of Icelandic singer Bjork as some sort of witch seem to be purely based on her association with Iceland. Nevertheless it was a welcome inclusion and a rare opportunity for us to see her.
Where The Northman failed was more along its story path which seem to be conveniently steered by unexplained appearances of witches and sorcery. Its characters are also not richly defined enough for us to appreciate their actions which ended up feeling like they are just behaving in a manner that suits the flow of the story.
At the end I have a bit of a mixed feeling for The Northman. I liked the look and feel of the movie which was different from the norm, and Alexander’s energy and presence. I had problems with the general lack of depth in its characterisation, the logic of how the plot flowed and also in its predictability level, which ultimately prevented this from being better than it should have been.