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The Northman review: Alexander Skarsgård carves bloody path through thrilling historical epic

Robert Eggers delivers a masterful film about the power of myths to inform our own lives.

Alexander Skarsgard yelling while wearing a wolf skin in The Northman
(Image: © Focus Features)

Our Verdict

The Northman delivers on its purpose in bloody, gory spades.

For

  • Great performances across the board
  • Excellent focus on historical accuracy
  • Gorehounds will have a blast

Against

  • Less thematically complex than it could be
  • Feels its length

Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) has become one of our most idiosyncratic filmmakers working today, delivering movies that are as obsessed with extreme historical accuracy as they are with the psychological depths of their characters. 

The director’s latest, The Northman, which he co-wrote with Icelandic author Sjón (Lamb), is probably his most ambitious film in terms of pure bloody spectacle. While it might not be nearly so impressive on a thematic level as his other work, it’s a remarkable movie that explores the lengths a man will go to in order to live up to the legacy of his father and the myths that informed his upbringing.

If you’ve seen The Northman trailer, you already have a firm grasp of the plot’s thrust from Alexander Skarsgård’s delivery of the line "I will avenge you father. I will save you mother. I will kill you Fjölnir." In a blatant 10th-century reinterpretation of Hamlet, Prince Amleth (Skarsgård) seeks revenge on his regicidal uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) after the death of his father (Ethan Hawke) and the abduction of his mother (Nicole Kidman). 

Surviving as a refugee, Amleth develops into a musclebound village raider. He learns that Fjölnir has fled to Iceland to start anew, so he disguises himself as a slave and boards a boat bound for his uncle’s colony. His only ally is a fellow slave and witch named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who sees Amleth as her chance at freedom, providing a cunning mind to back up Amleth’s aggressive brawn.

This sets the stage for a surprisingly straightforward story from Eggers, though the plot is not without its twists and turns that make for playful variations on its Shakespearian inspiration. The focus is more intentionally directed at the film’s sense of place and atmosphere. This may present itself in the form of period-authentic lodging and costume design, in the mythic gravitas of Amleth’s confrontations with the supernatural or in the explicitly gruesome bouts of violence that inevitably result in blood and viscera splattered everywhere. 

The Northman isn’t shy about showing you the horrifying ways in which human and animal bodies are mere commodities for combat, sport, ritual and sacrifice — an early raid on a village rather quickly displays where the moral compass is pointed at this period of history. Yet these images are presented not simply to disturb the audience, but to show the natural consequences of a culture where most individual lives are not valued.

What is valued, however, is the mythology that permeates their lives. Whether Amleth is receiving drug-clouded advice from shamans and witches, confronting supernatural horrors that may only exist in his childlike imagination or dreaming of his ascension to Valhalla as a hero of vengeance, The Northman is constantly mixing the beliefs of its characters with the bleak reality of their circumstances. This stylistic choice should be no surprise to fans of Eggers’ other movies, but here it seems to be the primary thematic point, a deconstruction of a classical revenge narrative by showing how stories and idol worship might convince a traumatized child they need to grow up into a vicious killer to uphold their familial honor.

This makes Alexander Skarsgård a perfect casting choice for the role of Amleth. His familiar tendencies as an actor perfectly reflects the prince’s stunted emotional growth as he keeps all emotion repressed under a thin veil of stoic rage. This is supported by a wealth of great performances, from Bang investing Fjölnir with his own sense of familial duty, to Olga acting as a much-needed emotional release for Amleth, to Nicole Kidman delivering a shocking performance that completely subverts first impressions.

There isn’t anything explicitly wrong with The Northman — though the runtime (more than two hours) might feel a little arduous if you aren’t prepared for it — but it feels a bit lacking when placed in the context of Eggers' other, superior work. 

The Northman's priorities are in transporting audiences to a time and place that is nasty and brutal, depicting the kind of people that would thrive in such a social and natural environment, and revealing as to how their stories and myths might reinforce their brutishness. That may not be mindblowing, but it’s certainly compelling in its own right. The Northman delivers on its purpose in bloody, gory spades.

The Northman is now playing in UK theatres and will open theatrically in the US on April 22.

Leigh Monson
Leigh Monson

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.