‘The Northman’ has alluring takes, feels less immersive
From his directorial debut with “The Witch” to his affirmation with “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ projects grew in length, budget and critical acclaim.
With “The Northman,” the trend has exponentially continued with respect to running time and funding, but one can’t help feeling that the film is a critical regression.
It still happens to be quite good and may actually prove unprecedentedly well-received among wider audiences, delivering a blood-soaked tale of revenge and its trailing horrors, somehow managing to find a fine middle ground between primitive excitement and academic levels of historical and mythological depth.
Seekers of the hypnosis-inducing quality of his previous work, however, will likely feel periodically stirred awake from “The Northman’s” spell.
Whereas his other two films effortlessly suck you right into their world, this ode to Odin feels less immersive, not by a misstep in its attention to detail or by a lack of alluring takes, but by a sense of having been tampered with, as if afraid you might fall asleep if a scene plays out for too long.
When looking for what may have created this interrupted atmosphere, we find ourselves in the classic dilemma of chicken or Eggers. In this case, it happens to be the studio which, after some unfavorable test screenings, cowardly imposed a recut of the film upon its hatchling, abandoning the mast for the alleged taste of the masses.
The result is a certified lack of pacing, concerned simply that story beats be hit instead of when they would most effectively land. But thanks to the film’s structure, this still leads to stretches of very effective vicarious Viking action and daily life, though never quite reaching its sublime vision of Valhalla.
Despite falling short of heavenly revelations, the film reaches sentimental high points in Eggers’ career through an initially contrived but subsequently well-flourished romance between the characters of Amleth and Olga, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy.
The more tender scenes provide a dynamic contrast to the unrelenting bloodbaths, a contrast largely absent or superficially feigned in most of today’s big-budget action flicks, which is one among many things, including cinematography and costume/set design, that makes “The Northman” stand out despite its pacing issues.
This freshness that comes through, even after having been tainted by the hands of the studio, highlights the strength of Eggers’ voice and the need for larger-budget films that are more than just cannon fodder.
For this reason, watching “The Northman” in theaters is crucial to ensuring that studios provide more large-scale opportunities to filmmakers that have proved their sensibilities in smaller environments, and hopefully with more trust in the sensibilities they showed in the first place.