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Review: The Northman

Sophia Ash excavates the bloody core of Robert Eggers' unrelenting blockbuster

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures

A tale untangling against the bitter cold plains of 10th century Scandinavia, The Northman throws us into the earthy yet surreal Viking world, entering a web of visions and prophecies overshadowed by gleeful brutality. Fantasy and religion converge with psychedelic ceremonies and hallucinatory rituals to craft a world palpably distant from our own.

Within this coldly disoriented terrain unravels the story of Amleth, a young prince who bears witness to the betrayal and death of his father, King Aurvandil. In anguish he watches, as his uncle brutally murders his father and with this all he has known as a child. When through sheer force of will he breaches his emotional paralysis, young Amleth flees to the seas, screaming a mantra to the skies; “I will avenge you father! I will save you mother! I will kill you Fjólnir!” And thus is germinated the vow of vengeance that becomes his very essence, as he is forced to navigate the cold-hearted North to fulfill his promise. Here, in this bitter terrain, the slow, rhythmic pulsing of drumbeats catches on the air, harnessed into the violent cry of the wind as it spirals into storm. Amleth embarks, a lone warrior propelled only by his promise of vengeance, enveloped by the moan of battered bodies, the guttural yells of the bloodthirsty that skitter on the surface of that relentless beat. It quickens with the heartbeat as blood spills, as veins thrum with the lure of bloodshed.

Years go by and we see Amleth, now an unyielding warrior bristling with the strength that immense loss has granted him. An encounter with a seeress recalls his vow and sets him on a course to Iceland, where he masquerades as a slave in order to infiltrate his uncle’s circle, connecting with a budding sorceress, Olga, who aids him in the process. And here, Eggers refuses to reign in the sheer violence of the Viking world; we see severed limbs contorted into the shapes of animals, entrails spilling from gaping wounds, crushed bones shattered with frightening ease. Virtue heaves a single breath and dies in this land; honour, duty, vengeance… all become empty notions twisted and warped into something terrible in its simplicity;  to avenge his father, to save his mother, and to kill Fjólnir.

Eggers' world is one characterised by war. Cloaked in the skins and furs of dead creatures, men scamper into battle like animals, attuned with a primordial unity that connects them to an impulse for bloodlust. Like wolves they skirt across the dirt and around the flames, partaking in hypnotic rituals of primal savagery, rituals beyond comprehension or reason. Perhaps here the violence and gore is a little too excessive; it seems to become an indulgence, which is quick to lose its impact. It rings hollow, isolating the viewer. There is no attempt to tune any sense of morality Amleth may hold with our own; he is brutal, savage, unremitting. In this, our ability to connect with him, or even willingness to root for him, is hindered drastically. But perhaps this is the point. Our distance from the times is illuminated with unwavering force, there is no attempt to sugarcoat the unavoidably gory reality.

Though still, it seems that as the film unravels, this great Norse legend has been reduced to the tale of a man seeking vengeance, a tale steeped excessively in violence, with a smattering of romance in a subplot that feels predictable. Perhaps the danger is the inevitability that we will compare it to Shakespeare’s tale, which against it dwindles down to an indulgence in empty aesthetics and crudely spun dialogue. Threads and twists are quickly lost in relentless spectacle and gore. Though Eggers’ tale is an immense vision that thrusts us into the sheer brutality of the past, it is difficult to connect emotionally to characters that seem archetypal, lacking in depth and dimension. Still, his ability to craft atmosphere, to recreate that violent time of ritual and war, is illuminated in this ambitious tragedy of loss and vengeance that unfurls against the icy Northern sky.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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