The ninth century is drawing to a close. The Vikings have yet to convert to Christianity. Snow falls over the North Atlantic. Ravens fly about. In fact, the name of the local ruler is King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). He’s married to Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Several decades later, their son, Amleth, will be played by Alexander Skarsgård. Oh, and watch out for the king’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang).
That’s the set-up for Robert Eggers’s “The Northman.” It’s a brutal and brooding drilling down to the legend that underlies “Hamlet.” The film yokes together the intensely naturalistic and ludicrously mystical. You want to go to Valhalla? “The Northman” goes to Valhalla, though it takes a long time to get there.
The movie doesn’t ultimately work, but that doesn’t mean much of it isn’t great. “Great” is a word that gets spread around in movie culture the way fake butter does on stale popcorn, only it’s greasier. Great this, great that. Yeah, right. Here, the word applies.
In one sense, Eggers’s filmmaking is absolutely bravura. In another, it feels as natural as breathing. The most obvious example is a Viking raid on a village. Eggers films it with a kinetic dexterity that’s breathtaking (speaking of breathing). But throughout the movie there’s a phenomenal directorial assurance. Eggers’s camera is often prowling and restless. It’s never, never aimless. Thinking in images, which is rare enough, is one thing. Feeling with motion, which is even rarer, is another. Eggers does both. This is someone born to make movies.
Many people, most of them male, will go see “The Northman” for its “Game of Thrones” goriness and accumulation of corpses. They won’t be disappointed, but they’ll be scratching their heads over a lot of what goes on between dismemberments. Another, much smaller group, will go see “The Northman” for Eggers’s artistry. They won’t be disappointed either, but instead of scratching their heads they’ll be covering their eyes. This is a world where cruelty is so casual it exists almost at a cellular level. You know that word “entrails”? Let’s just say “The Northman” is a movie where it isn’t just a word.
Eggers’s fascination with the past and historical detail was central to his first two films, “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019). Here they’re not so much central as all-encompassing. He doesn’t just want to recreate and show how the Vikings lived. He wants to live there, too. It’s a world of log walls and straw-strewn floors, with mud everywhere underfoot outside those walls. Yet magic is as much a part of this world, as natural and inevitable a part, as all that mud is.
Is this version of Viking life authentic? That’s a question for historians or anthropologists. It certainly feels authentic — there’s a sense of constant otherness to what we experience on the screen, yet with no sense of contrivance — and that’s what matters. Everything feels strange, savage, implacably other: royalty alongside slavery, formality prized yet pity nowhere to be found. “The Northman” seems so foreign, as it should. Yet what Eggers never forgets, and this does almost as much as his talent does to make his film so frequently compelling, is that what to the characters is mundane is to us unreal — and vice versa.
“The Northman” presents an elemental world: earth (all that mud), fire, water. Especially water: rain, river, ocean, a general sense of damp. How do you think that dirt stays muddy? Visually, these elements provide an array of textures that Eggers and his very gifted cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, do wonders with, especially the various permutations of flame: torches, campfires, lava (yes, there’s a volcano).
“The Northman” is as much about weather as it is about emotion. It’s weather as emotion. It’s also emotion as weather. (Kidman has an amazing scene with Skarsgård that’s part cyclone, part ice storm, and in an overpoweringly enclosed space.) These men and women live an existence in which meteorology can be a matter of life and death. The elements are elemental to them in a way we can barely imagine. An elemental quality informs “The Northman” generally. It makes sense of the characters’ excessive actions and unyielding behavior.
Being a born filmmaker does not make Eggers a born writer. He collaborated on the script with the Icelandic author Sjón. Expect no lightness or wit in the film’s use of language. If it weren’t for the transporting density of Jimmy Boyle’s sound design and the excellence of the industrial-strength score, from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, “The Northman” might be better experienced as viewing minus any listening. “Like a battle dog returning to its master, I am here to be fettered by my lady’s locks,” Aurvandill tells Gudrún. Woof, woof, your majesty, woof, woof.
The casting can get pretty wild: Willem Dafoe as the king’s fool, Björk as a seeress (that’s the name of her character, Seeress). Pretty wild is not the same as unserious. It’s a version of elemental. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays a Russian slave, is proof of that. She’s inspired casting. With that spooky changeling face of hers, Taylor-Joy fits right in in this world where the supernatural seems so utterly natural. Unfortunately, the character’s name is Olga of the Birch Forest. That’s worse than woof, woof. It’s woof, woof barking up the wrong tree.
Directed by Robert Eggers. Written Eggers and Sjón. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 136 minutes. R (strong bloody violence — no, really strong and really bloody — some sexual content and nudity). In English, Old Norse, and Old Slavic, with subtitles
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.