Every filmmaker wants to have a style and few actually manage to truly distinguish themselves. When it comes to director Robert Eggers, his style is particularly noted for immersion. His first two films were period pieces, namely 2015's The Witch and 2019's The Lighthouse. Working to capturing those films' respective periods is done in such finite detail that Eggers even writes his scripts in the authentic language of those periods. The downside to that is his films have never been particularly accessible to a wider audience, often being very artsy and slow-paced. This becomes apparent in his third effort, The Northman, in which Eggers creates his first big-budget epic (budget was said to be $70-$90 million) but was said to be at odds with Focus Features (the studio behind the film) in how to present the tale. While Eggers and the film's editor, Louise Ford, manage to find a balance, it's still hard to argue for the film's 162 minute runtime despite offering a brutal and uncompromising tale of revenge.
Eggers is always interested in capturing the world around his characters, but this time around much of this feels unnecessary given the simple objective of the lead character, Viking warrior prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). Namely to seek revenge for the death of his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) who is killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). This is not to put off the spellbinding and immersive performances of all involved. Each character is portrayed with much definition and essentiality such as Anya Taylor-Joy's Slavic sorceress Olga of the Birch Forest who teams with Amleth in his quest. And it's hard not to enjoy Willem Dafoe's small role as Heimir the Fool or Björk return to acting (following a 20-year hiatus) as the Seeress. And of course Nicole Kidman's supporting work as Amleth's mother, Queen Gudrún helps further to motivate the lead while giving probably one of the best acted scenes of the entire film. All-in-all, these characters help capture a world possessed by the old gods of Norway and the haunting atmosphere these old traditions drown these characters' choices with. Fate and choice are forever at odds and brought to a fitting conclusion by Eggers understanding of this world and it's characters.
However, Eggers indulgence in finite details tends to hurt the film, repeating recent errors of well-liked films such as The Batman or No Time to Die that try to add more depth to genre of action, sometimes at the cost of pacing or a less convoluted story. While The Northman doesn't suffer from the latter, the former is present as the film undergoes stops and goes for conversations of pure exposition. And the result is a first half that is slow and sometimes daunting to get through, given the audience knows where the story is ultimately going. The second half of the film is engrossing and quick as everything comes to a head, but that first half requires a level of patience that most audiences would rather be without. That's not to say Eggers doesn't sprinkle some great action scenes and character moments among it all, but he likes to pan across landscapes or fully enjoy various smaller moments (such as capturing a Viking raid early in the film that shows how a group would sort out their bounty of treasures and slaves after their victory).
Another similarity to other recent unnecessarily long films, and a small consolation prize for the audience, is a beautiful score by composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough that will terrify you in some moments and bring a tear to your eyes in others. They capture the spirit of every scene and I would daresay many of the scenes without this score could be the ones marked as unnecessary to the overall film.
So, perhaps, for those who had issues with Eggers arthouse pieces in the past, you might want to thank Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón who serves as Eggers first co-writer on a project. The director fully praises him in helping fine-tune the period-accurate dialogue to be easier to understand for audiences. And perhaps, for once, studio interference is helpful in making the film more what it's capable of being though it's more obvious in the second half of the film than the first. For the result is ultimately a movie of brilliant atmosphere and narrative only hindered by sometimes tedious world-building. While Eggers will probably learn further to get to the point and get moving with the story in his next film, he nonetheless creates a bloody good time...just takes a little for the blood to start flowing.