The Northman

The Northman 2022

Directed by Robert Eggers. Screenplay by Robert Eggers and Sjon.

I saw The Northman in its opening weekend at a fairly well attended screening at The State, and from the opening scenes (unlike my last cinema outing) you could’ve heard pin drop. This chaotic and extremely bloody film is loosely based on the saga of Amleth, (also the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet) which forms part of the ‘Gesta Danorum’ or ‘History of the Danes’ from the 12th century.

Here, Eggers has teamed with Icelandic writer Sjon, who also wrote the screenplay for the much lauded Lamb (2021). The result is a mesmerising fever dream of epic proportions. Featuring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke, this boasts a great supporting cast, including Willem Dafoe, Ingvar Sigurdsson and the wonderful Björk. The production was one of many delayed by Covid, but I think in this case, it has worked in favour of The Northman, with the end result a very polished production.

There are many, MANY fight sequences and they’re excellently choreographed by C C Smiff and shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, a constant collaborator on all Eggers’ features. The framing throughout is superb but one scene in particular has stayed with me, a beserker raid on a village that contains a lengthy tracking shot through a village. Filmed in one take, it is wonderfully balletic as well as incredibly bloody. All praise too for stunt coordinator Jòn Vidar Ambórsson and his team, who really made me wince and occasionally, gasp for breath! The original soundtrack by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is perfect – front and centre when required and unobtrusive for the remainder. Similarly, there’s been a lot of work poured into costuming and historical accuracy, right down to a valkyrie with dental adornments and a he-witch in women’s clothing – real practices in Iron Age Viking culture.

Having a much bigger budget for this third feature has also opened up new horizons (literally) for Eggers. After the intentionally stifling feel of the New England forest (and Thomasin’s tiny family cabin) in The Witch (2015) and the similarly claustrophobic feel of The Lighthouse (2019), the broad horizons and multiple locations of The Northman give an appropriate sweeping, epic feel to this saga of vengeance and love. It fleetingly draws a shade of grey over Amleth’s quest (a thread that could’ve been pulled a little more I feel) but it remains a top class epic revenge saga.

If like me, you’re a fan of Eggers’ brand of visceral dark horror (yes, it is a horror movie), I’m sure you’ll enjoy this and, like his previous films, I’m sure this will stand repeated rewatching. But be aware, it isn’t for the squeamish or faint hearted. The Northman is currently in wide release globally and I suggest seeing it on the biggest screen possible. Very highly recommended.

The Woman in the Fifth

The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

This came up recently on streaming site Mubi but I missed it (and a lot of other interesting movies) due to the demands of study, which is thankfully now in hiatus for the next couple of months. I found it on Tubi, a free streaming site that’s just come into the Australian market. Because it’s so late to the licensing table, most of the content is straight to video/dvd b-grade fare, but there are some true gems in there – especially in the horror/sci-fi/thriller areas. Also, there’s a fairly extensive foreign language section that I need to trawl through this winter.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this is my first Pawlikowski film – no, I haven’t seen Cold War (2018) or even Ida (2013) – terrible, I know. But something I’m now determined to rectify in the coming months.

The story centres on an American writer who comes to Paris to try and reconnect with his six year old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife. The always watchable Ethan Hawke plays this damaged fellow with remarkable depth and makes for a very sympathetic character. Kristen Scott Thomas is elegant, understated and incredibly sexy as the mysterious translator but it is Joanna Kulig who really made me sit up and take notice. She owns every scene she’s in and brings a vibrancy to the film that sits well against the grimy underbelly of Paris that she lives in. (Yes, everyone’s told me she’s incredible in Cold War and I’ll get to see it eventually).

With respect to The Woman in the Fifth, I think it was great to see some of the seedier side of Paris, which becomes a tacit character in this. Pawlikowski obviously has a great eye for framing and shot selection but ultimately, the mystery turned to vague frustration for me, with too many obvious plot holes and loose ends that were never acknowledged, let alone tied up. To be fair, I’m not familiar with the text it’s based on, Douglas Kennedy’s 2007 novel but I enjoyed this enough that I intend to seek it out.

For music lovers, there’s bonus points for the best use of Handel’s ‘Per le Porte del Tormento’ I’ve ever heard. Incredibly watchable but not as satisfying as it could’ve been.