Thursday 12 May 2022

The Northman (2022) - Movie Review

After two certified winners with The VVitch and The Lighthouse, writer/director Robert Eggers has cracked his artistic ambitions wide open with his latest. Shedding his New England aesthetics like a snakeskin, he now sets the stage for an epic historical revenge myth, co-written by himself and Icelandic scribe Sjón and itself based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. Yes, for the classics nerds amongst my readership, this is the same legend that inspired fellow classics nerd William Shakespeare in the creation of Hamlet. This film is the culmination of just about every storytelling idea and mood Eggers has been chipping away at over his career thus far, and what results from that is a production that redefines the word ‘visceral’.

This manages to go even further than VVitch in making its audience feel everything happening on-screen as if we ourselves were amidst the story. The bitter chill of snow, the smell of river water, the whispers of the ancient dead, the sting of hardened iron biting into flesh, the sound of entrails as they spill out of an open stomach, the taste of blood from another man’s jugular vein; it’s difficult not to caught up in what’s being depicted at pretty much every moment of this over-two-hour ride. But this goes one further in how it balances out all of this mortal viscera with some truly inspired imagery of the divine. While continuing aspects of VVitch’s more Pagan leanings, this film’s full-bodied embrace of Norse mythology leads to some inescapably enrapturing visuals. From the portend of a raven nesting, to the majestic ride of a Valkyrie into the halls of Valhalla, this has got frames for days.

On the visual side of things, the influence from Lighthouse is relatively small; most of it comes out in how the night-time scenes are handled, which are presented in monochrome with only the burning light of campfires and torches to break it up. But textually, this shows Eggers diving further into his own takes on primal masculinity, particularly in the depiction of Alexander Skarsgârd’s Amleth and his initiations into the ranks of the Berserkers. He is a man, trained to fight like a wolf, who must hide as a sheep in order to hunt a ‘fox’, in this case being his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) as revenge for killing his father (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapping his mother (Nicole Kidman). Skarsgârd completely loses himself in this role, more so than any other I’ve seen him take on, as he infuses himself into this blood-soaked myth where he is torn between being a man and being a beast… while learning just how thin the line between those two ultimately is.

And as backed by the gorgeously rustic set design, Robin Carolan and Vessel’s thunderous soundtrack (love those Ymir-sized drums), and pretty much every actor turning in some of their best work to date (even a short appearance from Björk as a blind seeress), the way this story goes about its depiction of vengeance and what it does to the human soul is quite sophisticated. While its stance regarding the practicality of vengeance took a bit for me to get past personally (I tend to prefer Death Sentence over Death Wish, if you get me), the writers show genuine understanding of how oversimplified notions like revenge turn out to be a lot more complicated than they feel in the moment, and the overall musings on notions of fate match up to the heightened mythologising of both the story and its setting.

It also merges the gender commentary of Eggers’ previous work, pairing up Amleth’s engine of destruction with a returning Anya Taylor-Joy (once again playing a witch). Up to this point, Eggers’ depiction of the sexes has come down to them sharing both halves of the human form: Feminine intellect and will, paired with masculine strength and action. In essence, this almost takes on a Jungian dimension, with their budding relationship leading to Taylor-Joy’s Olga trying to get Amleth to tap into his anima more than his animal. The Pagan magic side of things is presented as wholly feminine in-story, which ends up creating this idea of the male body as emptied of its primal humanity, and then used as a vessel for that feminine will. Not only is this the kind of idea I can already see annoying the more hyper-masculine set (which honestly makes me love it even more, considering how much they fetishise Viking culture in particular), credit also for how the film presents both the best- and worst-case scenario for that idea, making this one of the most honest and resonant depictions of gender equality I’ve seen on-film in quite some time.

Befitting a self-styled epic, I get the feeling I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this film has to offer. I mean, I haven’t even gotten into how the mechanics of slavery affect the plot at various turns, how Norse tradition and customs are represented throughout, or the ways that it plays around with the familiarity of its own story because of the cultural ubiquity of works like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Quite frankly, as much as I try and cover everything I can, I’ll leave those topics for those who are more learned in such matters. Personally, though, this connected with me in exactly the way I wanted David Lowery’s The Green Knight to connect with me: A grand cinematic work of mythmaking that is both brutally human and awe-inspiring in the most divine definition possible. It is epic cinema the likes of which rarely gets made nowadays, and as long as you have a sturdy-enough stomach for the red stuff and… other such unpleasantries, I highly recommend checking this out for a good hard look at what makes the movies so fucking rad.

No comments:

Post a Comment