The Northman manages to stake its claim as a quintessential Viking epic the moment we see a hulking Alexander Skarsgård jumping off a battlement, bloodied axe in hand and cleaving through a horseman on his landing.
Without even a breath for pause, he continues, hacking all that stands in his way. An impressive tracking shot captures the chaos that entails a Viking raid. They pillage and ransack a village, snatching up children to be set alight; it is brutal, unforgiving, yet glorious.
It's just the first true battle scene but it sets the pace and tone, something even the film itself sometimes struggles to keep up with.
Director Robert Eggers doesn't do anything half-heartedly. He proved that with The Witch and The Lighthouse and does so doubly with The Northman. The amount of care and research that went into setting this grand stage is clearly evident at first glance. The set and costume design are designed to be historically accurate. Much of it was even painstakingly created from archaeological discoveries.
In true Eggers manner, he marries that research with a mythical, supernatural undertone. While Northman follows his tried and tested formula, it is his most ambitious and expensive one yet.
The tale of The Northman is one as old as time, some of it a little borrowed from an old Danish story, "The History of the Danes" by Saxo Grammaticus and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Amleth (Skarsgård) witnesses his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), murder his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and kidnap his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). As a young, crying Amleth escapes on a boat, he repeats his vow: he will avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir.
It is not just a vengeful promise that Amleth has sworn his life to follow but also lays down the sequence of gory events that are expected to come. It shapes and rules over him exclusively.
Young Amleth's escape and transition to his older jaded self seems a bit hurried. When Amleth comes across Björk as the Seeress, and it is somehow not the oddest she's ever looked, she points him to Iceland where Fjölnir is currently residing. He brands himself and boards a slave ship off to Iceland. Here he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a seer. The pair bond over their captivity and begin to plot epic Amleth's revenge.
The second hour of the film is markedly different in pace and these inconsistencies are where the film suffers. While some elements of the first hour could have used a slower approach, there are parts of the second hour that drags on a bit too long. What ends up suffering, is the climax, the penultimate moment and the fulfilment of an oath borne of revenge.
Even with the drawbacks of the act, the highs will leave you gasping on the edge of your seat. In fact, there is a particular scene brilliantly acted by Kidman and Skarsgård that got such a visceral reaction from me that I had to pause and put my jaw back in place.
The more frustrating sequences feel more aimless. It can be chalked up to Eggers building up for an explosive finale but he waits too long to pull the trigger, and the ensuing bang leaves much to be desired.
But the film never lets you linger on the bad for long. The viewer is constantly swept from one gorgeous scene to another. Whether it be the breath-taking cinematography of Jarin Blaschke or the Viking inspired score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, there is always something that'll woo your attention.
The segments that awe the most are of the more supernatural variety. Some shots, if paused, look more like pieces of art, it wouldn't look out of place in a museum. This blend between our world and the supernatural is what Eggers does best.
The Northman thrives best in the battle scenes, of which there seem to be too few. Blaschke and Eggers shoot long, unbroken scenes that track the scope of the battle. It offers an almost impartial view and we get to see the violence of war for what it is – merciless. And this is why The Northman succeeds so well in portraying its action segments.
In the more dramatic scenes, the actors put in a wonderful shift. Kidman in particular stands out in her portrayal of a complicated character. Skarsgård never fails to hold your attention, whether he is baying like a wolf or cutting someone's head off. He layers that with a dramatic performance; you can really feel the futility of his vengeful promise near the end.
Overall, The Northman is not without its faults, the visual and technical feast is sometimes let down by the plot and pacing. It reminded me of a video game at times with its hurried plot lines but fantastic action. It's not a surprise that I reinstalled Skyrim right after it ended. Nevertheless, Eggers once again proves himself as this generation's most promising auteur. I await his next venture with bated breath, hopefully, he tackles another historical era.