By Bradley Lane
Robert Eggers cut his teeth on ultra-historically accurate low-budget genre art films. A ridiculously specific niche if ever there was one, now Eggers is at the helm of a $90 million historical Viking epic. Given his historian like obsession with the past and previous critical acclaim, Eggers seems to be an obvious choice to a film like this, but his artistic eccentricities create a great quandary for The Northman. Can an auteur like Eggers make a film artistic enough to satiate his core fanbase of indie cinema lovers and a film crowd pleasing enough to keep general audiences entertained for its over two-hour runtime?
Like all of Eggers’ previous work, the initial idea for The Northman comes from historical texts of the time and place of the setting and in this case, it was a 10th-century Norse saga that would serve as the jumping-off point for the story. If that sounds intimidating, fear not, this saga also served as a basis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which has been adapted over and over until the narrative has essentially been imprinted into the collective modern consciousness. If you’ve ever seen The Lion King the story will be familiar to you: a young prince loses a father figure through a betrayal and then seeks revenge to claim his kingdom back from the betrayer.
Where The Northman seeks to separate itself then is in its presentation of a well-trodden plot. Eggers’ previous two films were celebrated so much because of their extreme artistic integrity, even going so far as to recreate historically accurate dialects for the dialogue. Despite its wider release and big monetary backing The Northman continues this tradition as the film is practically stuffed full of era accurate, costumes, sets and props creating a wonderfully tactile texture. This base of an incredibly well realized setting provides an immersive platform for the cast to deliver uniformly excellent performances, with standout roles from Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård.
Where an issue begins to arise is who exactly the film is for; and more importantly for Eggers, can it make money? The nature of adapting a 10th century saga is that the context of the story is rooted in the values and conventions of the era. Eggers makes some attempt to modernize the story with a hypnotic editing technique and visceral action set pieces, but I worry general audiences might still feel alienated by the pacing and arthouse fans might not find enough narrative depth to resonate with their expectations. Despite this, I find myself in a unique position of enjoying both sides of this cinematic push and pull between art cinema and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
With the caveat that audiences need to prepare themselves for a less than modern narrative experience, I think The Northman is an effort worth celebrating. The fact that this movie even exists is exciting. To think a filmmaker as weird as Robert Eggers can be given a big budget and an A-list cast to make a summer blockbuster is a hopeful sign from Hollywood that risks are still worth taking in an increasingly homogenized film landscape. The Northman is currently available to watch only in theaters. – 4/5 stars