“The Northman” is a visual feast; elsewhere, the pickings are slim
Updated: Jul 8, 2022
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Alexander Skarsgård, left, stars as the Viking prince Amleth, who vows to avenge the murder of his father by the ruthless Fjölnir the Brotherless, played by the Danish actor Claes Bang.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, digital copy; 2022; rated R for strong, bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: The commentary with director/co-writer Robert Eggers
THEY SAY looks aren’t everything. They are wrong.
Take “The Northman,” please.
Director/co-writer Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke created alchemy before with “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019). This time, though, they up the ante. Filmed in Northern Ireland and Iceland, “The Northman” looks stunning, and the extensive research, which Eggers discusses at length in his engaging commentary, pays off at every turn.
But if you’re looking for an involving story with three-dimensional characters, you should pass on this bloated, overwrought, wannabe epic and look elsewhere – like “Hagar the Horrible.” “The Northman,” a box-office dud with a $68 million payday on its roughly $60 mil investment, is made-to-order for adolescent boys who spend too much time playing video games.
(1) Viking King Aurvandil War-Raven returns home to the island of Hrafnsey. (2) Young Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed by the arrival of his father. (3) Nicole Kidman is the scheming Queen Gudrún. (4) Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), Amleth and Gudrún take their seats on the throne. (5&6) The treacherous Fjölnir, who covets the throne, joins the festivities and later murders his brother. (7&8) After witnessing his father’s brutal death, Amleth escapes. “The Northman” was filmed mostly in Northern Ireland.
Let’s dispense with the story.
Viking King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood,” 2014) returns to his scheming Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, “The Hours,” 2003) and adoring son Amleth (Oscar Novak, “The Batman,” 2022). But he senses trouble brewing and has the prince swear to avenge him.
Next stop, the crowded quarters of Heimin the Fool (Willem Dafoe, “Platoon,” 1986), who, when he isn’t jesting, is a practicing shaman/witch doctor. He puts Amleth through a Viking bar mitzvah that involves crawling on all fours and a lot of howling.
Sure enough, when they emerge, they’re attacked by Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang, “The Square,” 2017), who soon separates Aurvandil from his head. Fjölnir, who’s in deep with Queen Gudrún—betcha didn’t see that coming—declares himself king.
Amleth gets away and grows up to be Alexander Skarsgård (TV’s “Big Little Lies,” 2017). Now a berserker, he’s forgotten all about his vow and instead goes about tearing out the throats, chopping off the hands and decapitating his enemies – until he comes across a Seeress played by the Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk. She tells him, “Remember for whom you shed your last teardrop,” then gives him said teardrop.
Bent again on vengeance, he sneaks aboard a slave ship bound for Fjölnir’sspread and meets the soothsayer Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy, “Emma.” 2020). They hook up, have a kid and, before long, Amleth starts thinking that maybe he should flee with them rather than hunt down his uncle.
Fuhgeddaboudit. They square off atop a volcano and when we last see Amleth he’s heading to Valhalla on a white steed.
(1&2) Years later, Amleth has put aside his vow to become a vicious berserker. (3&4) In one of the movie’s most graphic sequences, the berserkers quickly overrun a village in Gardariki. (5) The Icelandic singer-songwriter Björkisthe Seeress who reminds Amleth of his vow.
With a 4K UHD transfer that’s been goosed by always-reliable Dolby Vision, “The Northman” (2:1 aspect ratio) looks fantastic. It was captured on traditional Super 35 film stock and mastered in true 4K with a light dusting of natural film. Some scenes are monochromatic, like those is in “The Lighthouse”; in others, like the visceral berserkers raid about a third of the way in, you can feel the cold and muck. And the rich, vibrant colors in the sweeping vistas, blue ocean and green, rolling hills, stand out against the film’s mostly gloomy, shadowy palette.
Detail is exceptional, too, whether in the panoramas, close-ups, or bloody entrails. And helmets off to Blaschke for his fluid, inventive camerawork. If he doesn’t already have a doctorate in orchestrating dolly shots, “The Northman” could be his dissertation.
“The Northman” is a noisy film, but the sturdy Dolby Atmos track meets the challenge. The action is robust and the quieter sequences don’t miss a beat, while the ambient effects always sound natural. Every bone-breaking crunch is fittingly brutal, dialogue is crystal-clear and the haunting score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough fills the room. All told, it truly is an enveloping, you-are-there experience.
The menu includes deleted and extended scenes plus “An Ageless Epic,” “The Faces of Vikings,” “A Norse Landscape” and other standard short features that break down the movie. By all means, start with Eggers commentary.
Right off the bat, he says that his crew “worked closely with Viking historians to create the most accurate version we could of a world that was very different 1,000 years ago, but there’s only so much archaeological and written evidence.” To fill in the blanks, Eggers and Co. studied ancient Viking burial sites, archaeology and tapestries, and consulted with musicologists.
All their groundwork was more than worth it. It’s hard to imagine a film that looks more authentic.
If only …
— Craig Shapiro
(1-3) Posing as a slave, Amleth is taken to Fjölnir's farm, where he confers with the soothsayer Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy). (4) Now married to Fjölnir, Gudrún tends to their injured son Gunnar (Elliott Rose).
(1) Gustav Lindh is Thórir the Proud, Fjölnir’s eldest son and Amleth’s cousin. (2)Fjölnir participates in a ceremony held after the death of Thórir, who was killed byAmleth. (3) Tessa Thompson plays the Valkyrie. (4&5) Olga tries to convince Amleth to flee with her. (6) In the film’s most harrowing shot, the berserkers cap their raid by setting fire to a building, burning the people inside alive.