THE NORTHMAN reviewed
All wolves go to Valhöll
But it is more. It is one of the most significant films made in many, many years. It cannot be seen only for its basic merits as a film for two tightly linked reasons: Firstly, it is “very Indo-European”. Secondly, it is—and if unconsciously so, if an emanation of director Robert Eggers’ spirit, all the better—a film-against-time.
Let’s get basics out of the way. THE NORTHMAN is a strong offering; COVID precautions meant principal photography took place mostly in Northern Ireland standing in for the Iceland where only a few shots were done and in which the story takes place. The geology and climate situation of Iceland, Northern Ireland, The Hebrides, and Scandinavia’s shores are similar and the titular ‘Northmen’ who made their viking raids did so from Vinland to Sicily, so the craggy, beautiful Northern Ireland is as good a mockup for Iceland as any. People tend to praise good ‘cinematography’ the way they praise good ‘acting’—good movies have it, bad movies don’t. It’s hard, as anyone who has vacationed in the Scottish Highlands or visited Iceland will tell you, to capture what it looks like on a phone. The massiveness just doesn’t translate well. In key shots this is somehow masterfully done. Besides the landscape, the cuts and pans are what you’d expect. You don’t notice them, there’s little to say, if you’ve watched Game of Thrones, (boy, didn’t that just fall out of cultural memory?) you’ll get the same.
I don’t know any music theory, so the way I evaluate a score composition is by noticing how much unbidden emotion it inspires in me. I’m a child of the most irony-poisoned and unmerited-ly jaded Millennial generation. Master and Commander, 300, Blackhawk Down, The Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and DUNKIRK’s scores all succeeded at least for me, in tapping into the primitives of the old primate instinct which the on-screen action evokes. The imagery and the music become one in THE NORTHMAN. This is a film that will remind you swinging a dulled axe through a man’s skull before he plunges a spear into your heart isn’t something you are capable of and you ought lift more.
Popular taste has always favored the heroic epic. Both the oldest stories humanity has recollection of from its holy books and its national literatures to the Marvel Cinematic Universe schlock which has plagued us for more than a decade are stories of the Gods in combat and intrigue against one another and mere mortal figures transcending so to do battle on the very same grounds. Other story motifs exist of course, and the budgets and blaring-horn scores of ‘epic’ films have only gotten bigger and louder, but this film absolutely nails it.
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