When the Northboy’s (Oscar Novak) uncle (Claes Bang) kills his father (Ethan Hawke) and abducts his mother (Nicole Kidman), he goes on to live a peaceful wandering life where he devotes his life to music and poetry. Just kidding! He grows into a burly Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) and sets out for ultraviolent revenge.
The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers proves it really is grim up north, meticulously rendering a Norse landscape which is gritty, grimy, filthy, bleak and cold. This is world building skill to rival Dune, which gives the film oodles of atmosphere – mainly one of misery. The limited use of CGI and attention to historical detail makes a completely believable world, despite the film’s more fantastical elements.
Unfortunately the visual ingenuity is not reflected in the storytelling, which is the same story we’ve seen a hundred times, from Hamlet to The Lion King via Conan the Barbarian. This would be less disappointing if the film was fun, but the relentless joylessness becomes difficult to bear when the plot unfolds more simply than flat pack coffee table.
It’s a classic battle of style versus substance, with style vanquishing substance in bloody gore. There are a handful of original and engaging scenes which make The Northman not a complete waste of time, but ultimately it’s just Conan the Barbarian without the snake cult, which is the best thing in Conan the Barbarian.