Robert Eggers’s vengeance-fueled Viking saga astounds on home video
With his petrifying 2015 debut The Witch and his hilariously grim and grimy The Lighthouse in 2019, Robert Eggers’s work has scratched a primal itch when it comes to genre films. The dread-ridden forests of New England or the endlessly raging torrents of the sea have paled in comparison to the dark desires lurking within Eggers’s characters, and his masterful calibration of character and tone reap chilling and cathartic rewards for his audiences. The Northman sees Eggers’s unique vision at its most expansive yet, tackling the ambitious goal of creating a blood-soaked Viking saga inspired by the texts that would later be adapted into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A globe-trotting epic rich with the exacting period authenticity his films are known for, the scale of Eggers’s film also extends to the inner depths of his characters—who must reckon with their varying thirsts for vengeance amidst a folkloric tapestry of fate, magical omens, and unstoppable consequences.
Amleth (Oscar Novak) is just a boy when his father, Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), is slaughtered by Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir captures Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and sends his men to kill Amleth by any means necessary. Amleth escapes, dedicating twenty years to his drive for vengeance under the mantra, “Avenge Father, Save Mother, Kill Fjölnir.” The adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is forged into a bear-wolf of a man, aiding fellow Vikings on bloodthirsty raids across Europe, when divine intervention (in the form of singer Björk) puts him in the path of Fjölnir, now a deposed ruler hiding away in the lower reaches of Iceland. Amleth poses as a slave so that Fjölnir can possess him, and plots with fellow slave Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) in order to bring his decades-long quest for revenge to a savage and fiery conclusion.
Stepping far out of his comfort zone with elaborately-choreographed action sequences across multiple locations, the world of The Northman is vividly realized on many levels. Eggers and his usual collaborators, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and production designer Craig Lathrop, go far beyond the isolating single locations of their previous efforts with aplomb, crafting a film that’s so confident and arresting in its vision that one would think all involved are seasoned veterans of high-budget action cinema. But what truly sets The Northman apart is how Eggers strives to immerse his audience not just in the epic world of his characters, but in the myths and magic that provide the foundation for their morals and subsequent mayhem.
From the opening sequence welcoming Amleth’s wandering conquerer-king home, to a psychedelic ritual initiating Amleth into an honor-bound line of succession, The Northman makes no qualms about exactly what kind of film it is. Pitching it as Conan the Barbarian meets Andrei Rublev, with epic sword fights given equal weight as visions of Raven-cloaked Odin or thread-spinning seeresses, Eggers infuses his fastidiousness with equal reverence for the mythology that provides the foundation for the film. It’s not an unfamiliar approach for Eggers, harkening back to The Witch’s shocking opening and finale, but never before has the director reckoned with magical realism on such a scale.
It’s a gambit that similar films would play up into either camp or self-referential cynicism. But Eggers and co-writer Sjón (of 2021’s Lamb) are ever conscious that all of the bloodshed in The Northman comes from a sincere origin of belief, much like everything else in the characters’s Viking society. If an audience is going to care about Amleth’s lifelong quest for revenge, it’s just as important to ground us in what makes him, Fjölnir, Olga, and Gudrún tick. While there are occasional moments of ambiguity—notably a burial mound sword fight seemingly ripped straight from the sagas—Eggers never shies away from moments of divine intervention or godly wrath throughout. Our characters’s beliefs are well-founded: he-witches and seeresses keep us on our ordained paths, spirited ravens circle the doomed like storm clouds of impending judgment, and if we die a glorious death, the sparkling gates of Valhöll await.
Our reward for investing in this magical world is access to the richly-crafted inner worlds of Eggers and Sjón’s characters, all well-realized by Eggers’s best ensemble to date. Amleth’s primally simple goal is constantly complicated throughout the film, whether by his deepening affection for fellow slave Olga, a dubious trust from his enemies Fjölnir and son Thórir (Gustav Lindh), or jaw-dropping confrontations with mother Gudrún. Each provides their own foil for Amleth’s fears and frustrations, but all remain fascinating characters in their own right. No matter how spectacular Eggers’s film may get, The Northman remains committed to creating a grippingly complex world that’s as fleshed out as it can be in period accuracy, emotional depth, and the realm of magic and fate that binds the story together.
Universal and Focus Features present The Northman in its original 2:1 aspect ratio in Dolby Vision HDR on the 4K UHD disc, and 1080p HD on the accompanying Blu-ray disc. On the 4K disc, audio options include an English track in Dolby Atmos, a Spanish 7.1 Surround dub, and a French 5.1 Surround dub. Accompanying subtitles in these languages are available for both the feature film and special features, save for the audio commentary.
From the way the flames lick dark cave walls, to the endless rainy misery of the film’s forests and fields, to the gnarled peat that roofs wood-walled huts, there’s no minute detail in Eggers’s film that goes unheeded in this reference-quality UHD transfer. Like The Witch and The Lighthouse, much of The Northman is spent in darkness, but where many subpar transfers would crush details in background blacks and grays, the details of the production design still stand out on both the 4K and Blu-ray transfers. In sequences shot in moonlight, the 4K grading honors the orthochromatic photography in preserving details without any red light in the image. That said, The Northman is also by far the most colorful of Eggers’s films, with lush greens and fiery red glows popping off the screen—especially during the volcanic finale.
The default English Dolby Atmos audio is a fittingly epic barnburner of a track, providing resonant bass and charging, direct dialogue and music that uses every channel present to provide an unmatched immersive experience.
- Audio Commentary: It’s always a treasure to get a commentary from Eggers where he can spend the entirety of the film’s runtime discussing the historical origins of the many intricate details that went into the character and production design. Notable details include the exact drug that Young Amleth and King Aurvandil War-Raven do with Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), the geographical origins of various stolen garb worn by the Vikings, where a werewolf is hidden amidst Amleth’s Tree of Kings, Björk’s input on her character’s costume design, how the cinematography of The Lighthouse led to how The Northman shot its night sequences, and how old languages were reconstructed thanks to the input of many regional poets and authors.
- Deleted/Extended Scenes: These thirteen minutes of moments removed from the film are in remarkably good quality, suggesting that they were excised late in post-production. The most surprising quality of these scenes is how much they focus not just on Bang’s Fjölnir, but on Kidman’s Gúdrun, whose role as a Lady Macbeth figure is pushed further into beguiling ambiguity. As Amleth’s warpath of vengeance descends upon Fjölnir’s farm, Gúdrun is given more chance to react to the goings-on, reckoning her past life with her present and being driven to protect her current family from what she suspects is a visitation from the deceased Aurvandil. While it’s understandable that these scenes were cut to streamline the film’s focus on Amleth, they further the emotional maturity of many of the film’s characters, and further fulfill Eggers’s ambitions of crafting a well-wrought Viking saga. Broken into Fjölnir and Hallgrímr at the Slave Shed; Yule Mummer Dance and Aurvandil’s Speech; Vikings Hide Langskips; Fjölnir’s Dream; Bosa Saga Extended; Aurvandil’s Ghost; Fjölnir and Gudrún; Gudrún Tucks Gunnar In; and Hel’s Gate Open.
- An Ageless Epic: The cast and crew discuss the genesis of The Northman, Eggers’s dedication to period accuracy, and how the rest of the film’s production team rose to the challenge of creating an epic that’s as true to its characters’s emotions as it is to the long-gone world they lived in.
- The Faces of Vikings: The film’s cast break down their characters and what drew them to play their roles.
- Amleth’s Journey to Manhood: A mostly first act-centric featurette featuring Hawke and Dafoe discussing their role in forming our first impressions of protagonist Amleth, notably in the design and execution of the surreal Henbane trip sequence.
- Shooting the Raid: The film’s production team discusses the logistical necessities and near-insurmountable challenges of coordinating and executing the Land of Rus raid sequence, including moving a giant hut three-and-a-half feet in the midst of camera setups to get the timing right.
- Knattleikr Game: The production team discusses how they hauled their resources three miles into the remote Irish mountains and recreated an ancient Viking sport, which culminates in a duel to the death between Amleth and Game of Thrones’ Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson.
- A Norse Landscape: Eggers and production designer Lathrop talk about the excitement of shooting in Northern Ireland as a double for Iceland, and how modern techniques and Mother Nature worked hand-in-hand to create an authentic Viking village for the film.
The Northman is now available on 4K + Blu-ray Combo Pack courtesy of Universal and Focus Features.
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