Release Date(s)2022 (June 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Focus Features (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Since 2015, writer/director Robert Eggers has built up a small but very idiosyncratic filmography that has managed to maintain a consistently recognizable tone despite its inconsistent aesthetics. His first film The Witch was captured digitally (using vintage Cooke lenses) at the classic European aspect ratio of 1.66:1, while his second film The Lighthouse was shot on black-and-white Eastman Double-X 5222 negative at the 1.19:1 aspect ratio of the silent and early sound film era. For his third film The Northman, he opted to shoot on 35 mm film again, but this time in color at a widescreen 2.0:1 aspect ratio. In each case, the overall aesthetic was chosen in order to support the story being told. Since The Northman is an epic tale out of Viking mythology, it called for an equally epic visual style to match. Yet despite the wide variety of techniques that Eggers has employed throughout his brief career, every frame of every one of his films still retains his distinctive stamp, from start to finish.
The Northman is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which is the story that provided the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Eggers and lead actor Alexander Skarsgård had been working separately to develop some sort of a Viking epic, but they finally ended up coming together in 2017 to figure out how to bring the saga of Amleth to the screen. Eggers turned to Icelandic author Sjón to collaborate on a script (the eclectic Sjón also has been an occasional collaborator with the likes of Björk and The Sugarcubes). Both of them relied on a raft of historians and archaeologists to make sure that the setting and the period details were as accurate as possible. The basic story should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen Hamlet, with Amleth (Skarsgård) on a quest for vengeance on behalf of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) against his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Yet the layers of betrayal run far deeper than Amleth could have possibly suspected, and his own journey to Valhalla will end up taking some unexpected paths. The Northman also stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Gustave Lindh, and Björk herself.
Eggers has stated that his goal was to create the most historically accurate Viking film ever made, but Eggers being Eggers, he ended up embracing Norse mythology as much as he did Scandinavian history. The Northman is steeped in that mythology, enough so that there’s a tension between the gritty period details and some of the almost whimsical flights of fancy. Yet that tension is inherent to the nature of the people being represented—it’s the dichotomy between who they really were, and what they imagined themselves to be. Showing respect for their mythology was the only way to truly respect who they were as a people. That fits perfectly into Eggers’ own ethos, and the result was a Viking epic like no other. It’s a period piece that’s been visualized as Amleth himself might have imagined it all those centuries ago.
Of course, that’s a difficult kind of thing to sell to modern audiences, so it’s not surprising that there was also some tension between Eggers and New Regency Productions. Eggers didn’t have final cut, but he did work with them to incorporate the changes that they wanted him to make. He may not have been happy about the process, but he was largely satisfied with the end results. Studio interference or not, it’s still easily recognizable as his work. From a commercial perspective, that’s not exactly a selling point either, and so The Northman failed to find much of an audience during its theatrical release. Fortunately, it’s done much better on home video. While the epic visuals do cry out for the largest screen possible, the nature of Eggers’ storytelling may play better at home than it did in the theatre. It’s an intimately personal tale of obsession and revenge that’s being told within the wrapper of a big-budgeted widescreen epic.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot The Northman on 35 mm film (in Super-35 format) primarily using a Panavision Millennium XL2 camera with specially modified Primo spherical lenses. High speed photography for the Palace of Visions was shot using an ARRI Arriflex 435 camera operating at 120fps, while drone footage and some Steadicam work was accomplished with an ARRI Arriflex 235 camera. Post-production work was completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate, with the full-frame image cropped to 2.0:1 for theatrical release. (Blaschke has stated that Vittorio Storaro “might have been on to something” with his Univisium aspect ratio.) The image is razor-sharp and finely detailed at 4K, with nicely resolved textures for the faces and the clothing, as well as for environmental details like the abundant fields of grass that serve as a backdrop. Despite the fact that everything originated on film, there’s a fair amount of CGI on display, but it integrates quite well, even under the microscope of 4K resolution. The High Dynamic Range grades (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are included on the disc) offer some subtle but tangible improvements over SDR. The Northman is anything but a bright and colorful film; the colors have been desaturated for most of the exteriors in order to give everything a cold, bleak appearance. Even the greens of the grass have been muted, since Eggers felt that vivid greens made the film seem less miserable. Yet there’s still some depth to that desaturated palette, with a fair amount of color detail. The red of Amleth’s tunic during the opening scene isn’t very bright, but it’s quite deep and rich. The grass may be desaturated, but it never looks monochromatic. In contrast, since the interiors are lit by firelight, those offer much warmer hues, as do the streams of lava that flow from the volcano during the fiery conclusion. The actual contrast range within each shot is strong, with appropriately deep black levels. Overall, it’s a nearly perfect rendition of the intentions that Egger and Blaschke had for the look of the film.
Audio is offered in English Dolby Atmos, Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital+, and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles. While The Northman provides plenty of brutal Viking action, it isn’t really an action film, so the Atmos mix is more noteworthy for the way that it immerses the viewer in the barren, windswept environments. There’s a consistent sense of ambience throughout, and while the overheads aren’t used extensively, they do spring to life whenever appropriate, like when some crows gather around the ceiling in one of the interior sequences. When the action does kick in, it does so with a vengeance, offering immersion of a very different sort—every blow, every swing of a sword, and every breaking bone offers a palpable sense of dynamic impact. In the same way that the visuals demonstrate a contrast between the bleak exteriors and the warm interiors, the audio provides dramatic contrast between Viking life, and Viking death.
Universal’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Northman is a two-disc set that includes a 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film and a slipcover, with a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside. The extras are identical on both the UHD and the Blu-ray, but note that all of them are in 4K with SDR on the UHD, and in regular 1080p on the Blu-ray:
- Audio Commentary with Robert Eggers
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (12:28, 9 in all)
- An Ageless Epic (11:17)
- The Faces of Vikings (10:27)
- Amleth’s Journey to Manhood (3:56)
- Shooting the Raid (4:10)
- Knattleikr Game (2:42)
- A Norse Landscape (4:43)
Eggers provides a thorough, detailed, but refreshingly self-deprecating commentary for The Northman. He’s only too happy to point out mistakes that he made, plus things that he wished he could have shot differently, but the pressures of a big-budget studio production prevented him from doing so. He even points out that the opening shot of the film proves that he saw the John Milius version of Conan the Barbarian one too many times as a child. He admits that despite his desire to make the most accurate Viking film of all time, he had to make a few concessions due to a lack of archaeological evidence, or else for practical reasons—for example, there would have been much less variety to the clothing worn by all of the characters, but he needed to have a way to distinguish them from each other visually. (He also let Björk have input on her own costume, which won’t be surprising to anyone who has seen the film.) As a testament to the rigid control that he exercises over all of his films, he notes that one line of dialogue was actually improvised by the actor, and it was the first time in his career that he ever allowed an ad-lib to make it to the final cut. (You’ll have to listen for yourself in order to discover which one.) It’s an engrossing commentary track for Eggers fans, and speaking personally as someone of Scandinavian descent, major props to him for consistently pronouncing Björk’s name correctly. (He also offers a helpful tip of a different sort at the end.)
The Deleted and Extended Scenes offer nine different sequences that can be played either individually or as a group. They do provide a bit more texture, but not any essential plot or character moments—although there’s more of Willem Dafoe, which never hurts. (Dafoe and Eggers were made for each other like peanut butter was made for chocolate.)
The rest of the extras are all standard EPK fluff featuring interviews with the cast and crew. An Ageless Epic focuses on the saga of Amleth and how the story was brought to life for the screen, with a focus on the quest for historical accuracy. The Faces of Vikings is a look at all of the actors in the film, and how they brought their own characters to life. Amleth’s Journey to Manhood centers around the initiation ceremony at the beginning of the film. Shooting the Raid shows the process of filming the first major battle scene, and the challenges of trying to make it look like it was actually shot in a single take. Knattleikr Game is a brief examination of the ancient Viking ball game that provides a key character moment for Amleth. Finally, A Norse Landscape shows Irish locations that were used as a substitute for actually shooting in Iceland. (Hawke makes the irrefutable argument that many Oscars for cinematography should have actually gone to the location coordinators instead.)
The featurettes are typically thin studio fare, but the commentary from Eggers is a strong one, and the audiovisual quality of this 4K Ultra HD presentation is close to reference quality. The aesthetic that Eggers chose for The Northman means that it won’t be as dazzling as some other examples on the format, but as a vehicle for conveying his intentions accurately, it’s every bit as dazzling in its own unique fashion.
- Stephen Bjork