The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

For Robert Eggers’ third feature, he dipped into mythology again for his foundation story.  This time he and co-screenwriter, Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, drew on the Norse legend of Amleth, which was also the base story for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In ninth century Scandinavia, we first meet Amleth, Prince of Jutland, as a pre-teen (Oscar Novak) when his maurauding father, Aurvandil War-Raven, King of the Jutes (Ethan Hawke), returns home to his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and son.  Aurvandil knows how precarious being on the throne can be given the politics at the time, so he and Amleth participate in a spiritual ceremony, overseen by the court jester, Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), to prepare him to succeed on his father’s death.

This turns out to be very prescient as almost immediately, Aurvandil and Amleth are ambushed by Aurvandil’s bastard half-brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang) and his men.  Aurvandil is decapitated, Fjölnir marries Gudrun, and Amleth rows out to sea to escape, vowing to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his usurper uncle.  What follows is a variation on the hero’s quest and revenge genres, with a solid dose of Norse mythology thrown in.

Years later, a buff adult Amleth (Alexander Skardsgård), who has been ranging over Scandinavia with a gang of Viking berserkers, encounters a seeress (Björk) who reminds him of his vow, predicts that he will take revenge on Fjölnir sooner rather than later, and that his quest will be assisted by a sorceress.  He discovers that Fjölnir has been dethroned by King Harold of Norway and is now living on a farm in Iceland with Gudrun and his two sons, adult bad boy Thorir the Proud (Gustav Lindo) and mouthy teenager Gunnar (Elliott Rose).  Branding himself as a slave, Amleth slips himself into a group of slaves being shipped to Fjölnir’s farm.  Aboard the slave ship, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) the sorceress that had been foretold by the seeress.

When Amleth wanders away from the farm one starry moonless night, he has a conversation with the ghost of Heimir (who had been murdered by Fjölnir) who points him in the direction of a magic sword that can only be unsheathed at night or at the Gates of Hel, an active volcano on the horizon.  This puts in place all of the pieces that are necessary for the culmination of the Gudrun/Amleth story thread and the naked fight to the death between Amleth and Fjölnir on the mouth of the active volcano.

There is lots to like here but, at least on this first viewing, Eggers has not successfully integrated all of the elements he is working with.  This story is much more complicated and with a substantially bigger scope than The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019).  One element is the Viking berserker violence which peaks in a long single-take sequence in which cinematographer Jarin Blaschke tracks Amleth and his raiding party as they hack their way through a village, killing men and boys, and raping women and girls before locking them in a barn and burning them alive - the link to a similar scene in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) is unmistakeable - and then recurs as Amleth secretly murders and dismembers Fjölnir’s men at night (using his magic sword) as a calculated act of terrorism. The second element is the way in which the cold and barren landscape (stunningly shot in widescreen by Blaschke) is mirrored in the lifestyle of the people who inhabit it.  The third element is the mythic/magical elements of the Norse myth which surface periodically but fade back as the revenge/hero quest elements take over.  The fourth element, which is well integrated, is a knockout score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.

My rating might change with a subsequent viewing (hopefully on The Astor’s big screen) but, apart from the cameos by Hawke, Dafoe and Björk, the cast is underused.  Skarsgård does not need to do much more than look buff and brooding and occasionally give vent to his inner wolf.  Taylor-Joy’s character is underwritten and is a cipher more than a fully fleshed out character.  My disbelief could not be suspended enough to accept Kidman as Skarsgård’s mother, even given the younger age of marriage and childbearing in the ninth century.  A quick Google search shows Kidman is nine years older than Skarsgård but, with a face full of Botox, she looks younger than he does (he has had a very hard life).

I had a good time with this as our Tuesday movie night pick but  the compromises that Eggers has had to make for his multiple audiences left me feeling let down by the end result.

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