In the pivotal, weirdest, and most memorable scene in The Northman, Nicole Kidman delivers the monologue of her career. The monologue is loaded. Kidman’s character, Queen Gudrún, tells her son Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) that everything he thought he believed was a lie. After escaping death when he was a boy, Amleth spent his entire life preparing to get revenge for his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir. Amleth also swore that he would save his mother who, from his perspective, was taken by Fjölnir unwillingly. Except everything Amleth is fighting for is a lie. Gudrún wanted her husband and Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill killed, and she begged Fjölnir to do it for her.
The monologue requires seamless, rhythmic expositional dialogue that simultaneously suggests the protagonist’s motivations are pointless. Gudrún seduces Amleth (her son, in case you have already forgotten). She kissed him in a sexual way, not in a mother kissing her son in the cheek way, and proposes a scenario in which Amleth kills everyone and the two run off together (Viking life!). The scene could have gone poorly if done by any other actor in any other way. Kidman strikes the balance of sincere melodrama and camp, making The Northman her best performance in years, and one of the best of her career.
Normally when you’re watching a Nicole Kidman performance, even some of her best, you are always, in the back of your mind, aware that you are watching Nicole Kidman. This is true, and likely by design, for most of The Northman. During the big monologue, Kidman is so absorbed in the performance that she disappears. Her face is the same save for some aging makeup: she looks exactly like Nicole Kidman but with long, blonde hair. But as the twist is revealed, Kidman is gone; her face, hiding in the shadows and lit only by firelight, contorts itself but somehow stays the same.
For a majority of The Northman, Nicole Kidman feels like she’s simply there as a very famous person who was cast in a standard motherly role to get people to see the very weird Viking movie (The Northman is a very good, but very weird movie. Cannot stress enough how weird it is). Queen Gudrún spends most of the movie in the shadows, portrayed in the narrow way Amleth sees her: a helpless Queen who lost her husband and needs to be saved. Kidman smoothly deceives the audience with a standard performance, making the twist shocking although it still feels earned. Looking back, Kidman’s performance plants seeds in a fit of laughter that could be interpreted as screams, loving looks that could also be hateful.
Nicole Kidman has always been a versatile actor, as open to pure camp like Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers and the AMC ad as she is to awards season bait like The Hours, which won her an Oscar. She is also, for the record, always open to wearing a wig, big or small. She’s done musicals like Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge!, her best performance to date because it combines her ability to execute the work of offbeat writers/filmmakers with her idiosyncrasies as well as her ability to deliver natural, heart-wrenching melodrama with her gentle charisma. The Northman director Robert Eggers understood these strengths and pushed her to go far beyond what anyone would ever expect. Eggers tends to do this, given that he is capable of getting surprising performances out of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two of the most chaotic, uncanny actors to ever do it. In The Northman, Nicole Kidman is doing her best Willem Dafoe performance, as is her right.
Only an actor so approachable and so loved like Kidman can rip your heart out so quickly and cruelly, then pull off trying to make out with her son. Kidman’s a reliable performer and while she has certainly given good performances in the past several years including her performance as a victim of domestic abuse (coincidentally opposite The Northman co-star Alexander Skarsgård) on HBO’s Big Little Lies, her performance in The Northman is indicative that she’s not done surprising us yet.