Why Viking film 'The Northman' flopped despite glowing reviews

The ambitious Icelandic saga by acclaimed director Robert Eggers has been struggling to attract audiences despite its A-list cast

Alexander Skarsgard as vengeful Viking Amleth in 'The Northman'. Photo: Focus Features
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The headline 'The Northman bombs at box office' has been doing the rounds these past few days, as Robert Eggers’ Icelandic saga spluttered when it opened in cinemas in America. Hollywood movies tank all the time, so why should this deserve any more attention?

The film, which stars a six-pack-sporting Alexander Skarsgard as a vengeful Viking out to kill his father’s murderer, was met with glowing reviews from critics. Eggers is used to this. His first film, 2015 folk horror The Witch, and its 2019 follow-up The Lighthouse, which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two salty sea dogs gradually going insane, were both lauded.

Yet the difference is The Northman cost anywhere between $70 to $90 million, depending on who you believe (Eggers has cited the higher figure; the film’s financiers claimed it's lower, when tax incentives are factored in). Either way, it’s a mightily hefty price tag for what is essentially an arthouse movie — even one that features an A-List support cast, including Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy and, remarkably, the Icelandic songstress Bjork, appearing in her first major movie in more than two decades, since headlining Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

As the five-star reviews dropped, so did the warnings. "It’s miraculous that $90m was spent on a blockbuster this bold and bonkers, and it won’t be again if it isn’t the hit that it so deserves to be,” tweeted critic Jamie Graham, who wrote about The Northman for UK film magazine Total Film. He was hardly alone.

The consensus was if nobody turned out to see Eggers’ epic, then studios won’t dare bankroll directors with elaborate, expansive, and expensive visions again. It’s a valid concern, particularly for those who are worried that Hollywood is now only interested in churning out superhero movies. And yet the studios are hardly to blame; last year’s biggest film was Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.8 billion worldwide), while 2022 has so far seen The Batman ($759 million and counting) storm to the top of the charts.

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from 'The Northman'. Photo: Focus Features

Even in the pandemic period, when audiences were fearful of returning to cinemas, the public were clearly willing to make an exception for comic-book capers. Compare this to The Northman. On its opening weekend, it took just $12 million from 3,865 screens in North America. At the time of writing, it’s made $27 million worldwide. While that figure is nearly $10 million more than The Lighthouse grossed in its entire run, it has a long way to go before going into profit.

Considering the film’s artistic merits, particularly the stunning visuals shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who filmed Eggers’ earlier movies, this audience apathy is surprising.

Back in 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe as a vengeful former Roman general, revitalised the swords-and-sandals genre, grossing $465 million and going on to win five Oscars the following year. Eggers’ film follows similar tropes to Scott’s bloody masterpiece, and yet has seemingly failed to connect with viewers. Why? Judging by the popularity of Vikings, the drama by Michael Hirst that ran for six seasons on the History Channel, it can hardly be argued that these muscular heroes of Scandinavian myth are unpopular with viewers.

Nicole Kidman in 'The Northman'. Photo: Focus Features

Eggers’ script is scrupulously researched, with meticulous attention paid to 9th century idioms of speech, just as The Witch and The Lighthouse were filled with era-specific dialogue. He worked on the script with Icelandic poet Sjon, a regular collaborator with Bjork who also co-scripted the recent fable, Lamb (it was the singer, who plays a seeress in the film, that introduced Eggers to her old friend).

Eggers has been quoted as saying he wanted to make “the definitive Viking movie”, and unquestionably, he’s conjured a film steeped in the mythology, rituals and revenge. Still, in the post-production phase, the early test screenings did not go well. Eggers told The New Yorker that one audience member wrote: “You need to have a master’s degree in Viking history to understand, like, anything in this movie.”

Ethan Hawke plays Amleth's father in 'The Northman'. Photo: Focus Features

While there was some inevitable push-and-pull with the studio after that, the resulting movie is not quite the academic exercise this suggests. There’s plenty of blood and thunder, as Skarsgard’s Amleth goes on the rampage, seeking out his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who killed his father (Hawke) and kidnapped his mother (Kidman). In truth, The Northman operates on an operatic level — the cinematic equivalent of listening to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at top volume — driven by overblown acting performances. In other words, it won’t be for everybody.

Next to your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, there’s nothing easy, comforting or even familiar about the Hamlet-like Amleth (unless you’re the son of a Shakespeare scholar, as Eggers is). Moreover, the film isn’t quite the bizarre trip that The Lighthouse was — making it too conventional for the arthouse crowd and too weird for mainstream audiences.

Undoubtedly, The Northman will find its audience in the near future. You can only imagine the bountiful viewer numbers if this had been a Netflix release. It may yet even score at the box office through word of mouth, though most aren’t holding their breath.

What this means for auteurs working in Hollywood, meanwhile, remains to be seen. Even Eggers, who is set to remake vampire story Nosferatu, has said he wants to go back to making a film on a lower budget, to allow for more control. Right now, the days of studios going out on an arty — and costly — limb look to be numbered.

Updated: May 04, 2022, 8:58 AM