‘The Northman’ is captivating but fails to reveal all its wonders
Alexander Skarsgård in 'The Northman.'

Mythology and folklore of the distant past are usually not only a gaze into civilizations long gone, but a look into how old stories affect our current world. When showcased effectively in modern entertainment, they can take on relevancy that goes beyond the historical. The new Viking-themed movie saga The Northman is a film steeped in Icelandic folklore and history. There are so many references and allusions to greater tales interwoven within the movie. It is a wild scenic ride that can be enjoyable if taken at surface level. The problem that comes into play is that there’s so much more below that surface that feels almost locked away behind a fortress of sparse dialogue and explanation. The Northman, sadly, isn’t as inviting as it needs to be for viewers wanting to explore the world the film presents to them.

Starring Alexander Skarsgård (Passing), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Claes Bang (Locked Down), Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho), and Ethan Hawke (The Guilty), The Northman is written and directed by Robert Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjón. The movie is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, who is a direct inspiration for the character of Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

It is a story about betrayal and revenge, as Skarsgård’s character Amleth aims to avenge the death of his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven. The film follows Amleth from the time of being a young boy as he grows into a fierce Viking warrior who aims to kill his father’s murderer and reclaim what was lost. Yet, twists, turns, revelations, and romance along the way complicate Amleth’s lust for revenge.

The beauty and the brutality are a near perfect blend in The Northman. The atmosphere, the landscape, and the action come together to fully immerse the viewer in the story. Even the scenes of extreme violence are masterfully done, making one squirm in their seat yet leaving them unable to turn away from the screen. Unfortunately, in modern times, it feels as though the idea of Vikings has been boiled down to become synonymous with plunder and assault. In less capable hands, a tale such as this one could have devolved into an over-the-top version of exactly that. Eggers takes a different approach—one that pays off in a number of ways.

Characters are given a complexity that would have otherwise been buried in violence and gore. Battle scenes and death are important to the plot and given significance instead of just placed in simply for the sake of being there. So when people are stabbed, decapitated, or injured, it resonates more, rather than forcing the audience to become desensitized to it because they are overwhelmed by it. This also holds true for the plight of the women characters in the movie.

Another issue when dealing with stories concerning the Vikings, or tales from the time of the ninth through the eleventh century, is that women had it rough (rough being an understatement). The pillaging and colonizing of towns and villages far too often included the rape, assault, and abduction of the women of these areas—women were part of the conquest.

When going into films that deal with these times in history, one almost expects a way-too-graphic scene of something like this taking place. This critic feels that one too many filmmakers take the easy way out in depicting these moments in a way that almost feels exploitative rather than adding to the storytelling. I am happy to report that Eggers does not fall into this trap.

Instead, he allows the trauma and ramifications of those hardships to be alluded to and manifested in more effective storytelling ways. The women characters are made important to the story beyond just their relationships with the men, displaying their understanding of themselves and what they want, for better or worse.

And yet, even with these hints at complexity, The Northman almost feels like a guarded tale that isn’t welcoming to those new to the mythos it explores. Confusing wouldn’t be the right word to describe the film. The overarching plot is actually very straightforward. The boy’s father is killed, the boy flees so as to not be killed himself, and the boy returns years later in disguise to avenge his father. That much is evident and easy to follow. Rather, it is clear that there are many references in the movie regarding the world The Northman belongs in, but the surface is only scratched. The occult, the magic, and the historic figures are there, but without the proper space in the story for the audience to appreciate them, they get lost in the simpler tale.

Nicole Kidman in ‘The Northman.’

We needed more of Taylor-Joy’s Slavic witch and the power that was hinted at in her character. We needed more of Kidman’s complex Queen Gudrún and the thoughts behind the decisions she made. Both Taylor-Joy and Kidman give knockout performances that nearly steal every scene they are in. Both characters are so compelling that this critic would gladly welcome two spin-off films following their characters’ lives and adventures.

Perhaps full exploration would have made the movie much longer than its already two hours and 16 minutes running time. But because of this, viewers may dismiss the film as just an action movie set in the past. They may feel the intensity but not recognize that it’s due to more than just the blood and the gore on screen. This is a solid movie, make no mistake of that, but the full potential it could have embodied almost feels like an opportunity missed.

If you’re looking for a film that explores Viking lore in a different, more nuanced way, while maintaining the action, then this movie is for you. It doesn’t go as deep as it could have, but if nothing else, it may inspire many viewers to look further into the history of the culture it depicts.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.