A young prince is happy. The young prince sees his uncle kill his father and take the throne, as well as the young prince’s mum. The young prince goes into exile, becoming a true warrior along the way. The now grown prince comes back and takes revenge on his uncle. The tale of Hamlet/The Lion King remains one of the most prominent cultural touchstones of our age, and film establishment darling Robert Eggers has decided he wants to put his stamp on it. So, we now have The Northman, a two-ish hour epic that has an entire PhD thesis of research behind it.
For a film where lots happens, The Northman has the laconic, lazy pacing of a Roberto Bolaño short, but without the charm. Perhaps this is just because the story is so deeply embedded in our popular consciousness that the viewer is just waiting for the next major plot point instead of paying attention to the painstaking detail Eggers is famous for. Or, perhaps, it’s just not that good a film – unless you’re the sort of person who bases their opinions of films entirely on what the industry thinks is innovative and interesting. On the bright side, you at least get to see a bunch of attractive, half-naked people and some excellent gore. Plus, as is tradition, Willem Dafoe gets his butt out.
While the performances are as good as the limited script allows (especially from Nicole Kidman, who plays the not-so-helpless queen), something about The Northman simply doesn’t ever kick into gear. The stakes are there, the battle scenes are excellently choreographed, and the atmosphere the film creates is one of unease, as Eggers undoubtedly would have wanted. But the problem is there is no thrust; one gets the feeling the director would be an excellent curator of LARP events, but on the big screen his passion and knowledge simply doesn’t translate to engagement.
The film itself isn’t bad, per se, but considering the hype around it, it’s hard not to be disappointed. Compared to Eggers’s iconic The Witch, it’s nowhere near as intriguing. And while his follow-up The Lighthouse was incredibly try-hard, at least it was just that: trying to be something unique. The Northman isn’t dull, but doesn’t invoke the same sense of anticipation that epics do, nor does it entertain like a good ol’ fashioned blockbuster. It’s sort of like a punk band trying to retain their edge despite the members living in mansions and receiving honours from the Queen.
Eggers clearly considers himself an auteur (itself a problematic concept, considering films require creative inputs from actors, writers, set designers, etc.), and there’s no doubt he’s imparted his style on the movie. It’s a truly beautiful two-or-so hours of film, even with the body parts flying everywhere. And it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into nearly every aspect of it. But the problem is it’s just not very watchable. Sure, when the credits started rolling I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time, and I was glad to have seen it on a big screen, but this is definitely not a movie I will ever watch again. I doubt anybody who’s honest with themselves about The Northman will disagree.
Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.