Arthouse Blockbuster, by Bob Connally

28 Apr

Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut, The Witch, announced him as a filmmaker with a strong, singular voice out of the gate. The film’s sense of atmosphere and attention to detail made it an immersive experience that lingered with you long afterwards. At the time many assumed that Eggers was the next great horror filmmaker but with 2019’s The Lighthouse and now his newest movie, The Northman, it appears that Eggers’ real interest is in history and in placing his audience into a world long forgotten. These are not historical epics that keep the viewer at a distance. Eggers puts us right in the muck with his characters in a way few directors even attempt and while The Northman is his most ambitious film to date, it feels decidedly consistent with his previous work.

Opening in 895, we meet a young boy named Amleth (Oscar Novak) as his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns home from war, victorious but battle damaged. Aurvandill tells his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) that he must prepare Amleth to become King now before he is inevitably killed in battle. It is not long after that Aurvandill is murdered, Gudrun is kidnapped and young Amleth is forced to run for his life. We pick up with Amleth again years later (Alexander Skarsgard), his rightful royal title unknown to the Viking berserkers who raised him and who he now raids and pillages with. Though he has been away for many years, a Seeress tells Amleth that he shall have his revenge upon his father’s killer and that he will free his captive mother. He also finds out where he must go and Amleth plans his course to Iceland to avenge his father.

Eggers’ first two films were shot in the box-like 1.19:1 aspect ratio and, in the case of The Lighthouse especially, the narrow frame created a feeling of containment. There was no escape from that little island for the two men driving each other mad and the bitter dialogue between them was one of that film’s great pleasures. Here Eggers goes the opposite direction, giving his film a greater sense of scope with a 2:1 ratio and while there is certainly plenty of dialogue, it’s almost superfluous. Like last year’s The Green Knight, The Northman is a movie that conveys virtually all it needs to through cinematography, sound design, and performances that express emotion through body movement and facial expressions more than words.

While The Northman appears to be a Norse adaptation of Hamlet, it was in fact Shakespeare who based his play upon the Norse folktale Vita Amlethi (The Life of Amleth) which was apparently passed down for centuries before finally being written down around the turn of the 13th century by a Danish historian named Saxo Grammaticus. Like so many others, I had never known that bit of history until seeing this film. This classical framework gives The Northman a timeless feel which contributes to making it the closest thing to a mainstream movie that Eggers has made. That said, despite the differences between it and his first two movies, there is no mistaking that it is a Robert Eggers film. His sensibility remains and his voice is as strong as ever. It’s just in service of a story that will engage the average viewer more than The Lighthouse did.

As the world opens up more and more, making going to the theater more regularly a part of our lives again, it is so wonderful to see films such as Everything Everywhere All At Once and now The Northman gracing screens as true, grand cinematic experiences that aren’t a part of a calculated franchise business plan. Theatrically released movies with a “weird art house” sensibility that can reach and delight a wide audience are so rare, especially in the age of streaming ,so whenever one comes along it’s something that needs to be supported.

The Northman is an outstanding piece of filmmaking and one that will be best appreciated on the big screen and if you want to see more of this kind of thing get made, it needs to do well in theaters. I highly recommend this to Eggers fans and general audiences alike.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply