The Northman

Northman is based on the Nordic legend of Amleth, a boy whose father (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who then marries his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Sound familiar?  It’s the source of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  After witnessing the carnage, young Amleth quickly catches the first boat out of town and vows to avenge his father, free his mother and kill his uncle.  Safely out of harm’s reach, Amleth catches on with a group of vikings.  Decades pass and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has become a fierce warrior with a body by Abercrombie & Fitch.  After he casually helps his band of furry men sack a village, the Amleth learns of the fate of his dastardly uncle and (supposedly) captive mother.  He boards a slave ship bound for his uncle’s digs in Iceland, determined to finally tackle his to-do list.  Along the way, Amleth makes nice with a fellow slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a comely seeress.  Working together, they quickly unravel Fjölnir’s sense of domestic tranquility so that Amleth can finally rescue his long suffering mother.  Unfortunately for Amleth, things were not what his young eyes perceived them to be.  No matter because in the end, revenge is definitely served.

Northman is an odd movie.  Revenge tales like these usually result in thrilling moviegoing experiences (see: Conan the Barbarian, Braveheart, Gladiator).  Northman, however, fails to engage at an emotional level, opting instead for gritty realism over character development.  Occasionally, a scene of breathtaking natural beauty or a particularly eccentric performance (thanks, Willem Dafoe) hint at what the movie could have been.  Director Robert Eggers, so effective (and efficient) with his horrific chamber pieces (The VVitch, The Lighthouse), seems torn on how to bring the material to life.  What should have been an epic tale filled with a tragedy and raw emotions feels stunted, grim and morose.  Odin will certainly strike me down for saying this, but Northman is a cheerless and slog through the mud.  Not recommended.  

The best thing about The Northman is that if you’re familiar with the plot of Hamlet, The Lion King, or Conan the Barbarian, you’ll be able to follow along even when you fail to understand the Nordic-influenced dialog.  The movie is divided up as a series of chapters, each preceded by a placard that at first displays words in the Nordic alphabet, followed by subtitles that tell in English where the action takes place.  In the beginning, it’s “The North Atlantic” in 895 AD.  King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns home from a successful conquest overseas.  He’s badly injured, so he refuses the entreaties of Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Instead, he tells her that he must prepare his son, Prince Amleth, to take the throne if he dies from his wounds.  Given how bad medical care was in those days, he’s being extraordinarily  pragmatic.

That night, Aurvandill sits on his throne with Gudrún and Amleth at his side.  It’s one of those typical medieval gatherings where everyone must honor the king before the fun starts.  Aurvandill is greeted by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and the two have a tense exchange that is interrupted by the Fool Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who makes a crude joke about how the Queen has the hots for Fjölnir.  Like the best jokes, there’s a bit of truth to what Heimir says.  But to emphasize that he’s “only joking”, he whips out and smacks his own penis while delivering the punchline.  (His dedication to his craft is admirable, to say the least.)

After all of the solem tributes have been spoken, Aurvandill takes Amleth to a private party with Heimir.  Within some weird underground lair, Heimir has them pretend to be dogs and drink some foul mixture from bowls.  He then asks them to prove that they are in fact human by passing gas.  (Dogs pass plenty of gas, so I don’t think Heimer’s test was board certified.)  Amleth has a vision that reveals a tree with bodies connected to branches, a family tree.  (I don’t understand why some of the bodies are skeletons and others rotting corpses, but maybe that’s the witches’ brew talking.)  Aurvandill explains to Amleth that he’s the direct lineage of kings, which should be a cool thing to be a part of.  Unfortunately, it is not.

The next morning, Amleth witnesses Fjölnir’s men surround and attack his father.  Fjölnir appears and promptly cuts off Aurvandill’s head.  Amleth evades capture, and witnesses his uncle carry off a screaming Gudrún.  Amleth escapes by boat and comes up with a handy mantra to fuel his revenge:  ”Avenge father, save mother, kill Fjölnir”.  I couldn’t help but think of Arya Stark repeating her hit list while on the run.  Simple goals definitely help keep you focused, even in the worst of times.

Thirty-some years later, Amleth (now Alexander Skarsgård) has rowed himself into a towering warrior with a chiseled physique.  After a night’s revelry, he leads his fellow Viking berserkers on a raid of a village in the land of Rus.  Amleth and the vikings make quick work of the villagers, and the survivors are put into two groups: slaves and those who are burned alive.  That night,  Amleth meets a Seeress (Bjork), who tells him that Fjölnir has fallen on hard times and lives in exile in Iceland (a place Bjork knows very well, by the way).  Since some of the slaves are to be sold to Fjölnir, Amleth brands himself and boards a slave ship bound for Iceland.

Travel conditions are rough, but at least Amleth makes friends with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a  sorceress who is almost as pretty as Amleth.   Fjölnir rejects all of the male slaves other than Amleth who, standing head and shoulders above the rest, should survive the winter.  (Olga is also retained for kitchen help.)  One night, Amleth meets another witch–a He-Witch.  (Witches were everywhere back then, apparently.)  The He-Witch tells him the terrible fate of Heimir, who was tortured and killed by Fjölnir the Thin-Skinned.  The He-Witch proceeds to channel the spirit of Heimer, who tells Amleth about a sword named Draugr that can only be drawn at night or at the gates of hell.  (Even back then, terms of service contracts were maddening.)  The He-Witch sends Amleth to an underground dwelling where he battles a skeleton for the sword.

With sword in hand, Amleth asks Olga to help him free his mother and exact his revenge.  First, Amleth protects Prince Gunnar, Fjölnir’s youngest son, from harm when he ventures out into the bloodiest game of rugby.  Now firmly in the king’s good graces, he is able to choose Olga as his wife.  After a night’s rumpy-pumpy, the two set out phase two of their plan, which involves softening up Fjölnir and eliminating his guards.  Olga’s contribution is to give the troops some mushroom-infused broth, which has some very dire side effects.

With the guards focusing on killing themselves and each other, Amleth approaches his mother.  Curiously, she does not want to be freed.  She reveals that she always hated Aurvandill for making her a slave.  The only reason why he made her queen was because she bore him a son (hello, Amleth).  She also confirms that Heimer’s tasteless joke was true:  she did have the hots for Fjölnir and begged for him to kill his brother.  Gobsmacked, Amleth refuses to join forces with his mother (in the biblical sense, if you know what I mean), and kills Fjölnir’s eldest son Thorir on his way out.

At this point the plot becomes complicated.  Olga sails away on her own while Amleth heads back to kill Fjölnir.  There’s a bit involving Thorir’s heart that, in the end, was completely extraneous and should have been left out.  Amleth is attacked by Gudrún and Gunnar, who he kills.  Then Amleth and Fjölnir meet for a duel at the Gates of Hel.  The scene reminded me of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s showdown in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.  Unfortunately, Lucas did it better seventeen years ago.  Cue the Valkyrie on the flying horse.  The End.

With Northman, Eggers goes above and beyond to present a more realistic depiction of life circa 900 A.D.  As he envisions it, the world is a dark, cold and incredibly violent place.  The attention to detail on display–the dwellings, the costumes, the weapons, the underground lairs, was impressive.  I also appreciated Eggers’ use of a variation of English (Vik-lish?) for the dialog, making it sound familiar and foreign at the same time.  (He employed the same tactic in The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019)).  Filming on location in Northern Ireland and Iceland also gave the production an authentic feel.  Unfortunately, while I admired the production design and aesthetic of the film, I feel that those achievements came at the expense of character development and narrative context.

An example of how a lack of context prevented me from emotionally engaging with the material was the raid and destruction of the village in the land of Rus.  The sequence is impressively filmed in a single take, with the camera walking alongside Amleth as the action unfolds around him.  On a technical level, it’s bravura filmmaking, featuring exceptional camerawork, staging and acting.  Other than feeling sorry for the villagers, I felt completely detached from what was taking place.  The reasons for this are twofold.

First, I didn’t don’t know anything about the two sides in the conflict other than the location.  The viking raiders and the hapless villagers are presented without backstory, making it impossible for me to take sides in the conflict.  Why are Amleth and his raiders attacking this particular village?  Is there any shared history between the two factions?  Did Amleth and Co. know they’d conquer those people so easily?  Were the raiders just after slaves?  Had the villagers provoked the vikings in some way prior to this conflict?  Again, the movie provides no context so that I could appreciate the scene beyond a technical level.

The second problem I had with this scene is the nature of the battle itself.  After a night spent putting themselves into a berserker frame of mind, Amleth and the rest of the men attack the village at daybreak.  They quickly overpower the opposing armed men in a matter of minutes.  Amleth was never in any real danger for a moment throughout the raid.  I’m not 100% certain, but I don’t think Amleth’s team lost a single man in the conflict, which is incredible given that many of the villagers were armed.  While I can see that the Vikings are taller and stronger than their victims, the conflict was so overwhelmingly one-sided that I was incredulous throughout.

When I stated above that character development in Northman is lacking, I’m not saying that the movie has no interesting characters.  My issue is that the key figures in the conflict, Amleth and Fjölnir, are underdeveloped and uninteresting.  To be fair, most, if not all of the characters in the movie are thinly drawn.  For some reason, the actors in the supporting roles are allowed to color outside the lines, while the actors who portray the hero and the villain (Skarsgård and Bang) play their characters in monochrome, without a sense of humor or self-awareness.

That so many of the supporting characters make an impression is mostly due to the quality of actors in those roles.  DaFoe does his typical lunatic/madman thing as Heimir, and his two early scenes give the movie an electricity that is never replaced.  Bjork’s seeress and her incredibly bizarre costume are only in one scene.  Ingvar Sigurdsson has too much fun as the He-Witch, and nearly orgasms while channeling Heimer’s spirit.  

Hawke has a couple of nice moments with the younger Amleth before he’s killed in the early going.  I’m not sure why Hawke signed on for such a short role.  I suspect his part, and perhaps most of the “early days” scenes in the first act were either cut out of the script prior to filming, or wound up on the cutting room floor when the film’s run time became unwieldy.

Taylor-Joy is always striking regardless of the role she takes on, and her Olga, with her Hungarian accent and devil-may-care attitude, is no exception.  Her character is the only one with a personality, by which I mean she experiences more than just two emotions.  Olga is also the only character in the movie who says something intentionally funny.  Kidman’s Gudrún is window-dressing until near the end, when she grabs the spotlight and gives an incredible villain monologue.  After she delivers her poisonous spiel, I couldn’t help but wonder why her character had been relegated to the sidelines for nearly the entire movie.

As for the older Amleth (played by Skarsgård), I found him to be a curiously bland hero.  I never would have expected to have this reaction to Amleth, given that he was the inspiration for Hamlet.  As the main character in a story predicated on revenge, Amleth is one-dimensional to a fault.  Skarsgård does give the character an impressive physique, but his performance is constrained by what Eggers asked him to do: embody a character with a very limited emotional range who delivers completely forgettable dialog.

Skarsgård is definitely a good actor.  As Eric Northman on the HBO series True Blood, he was always interesting to watch, a deft combination of confident sex appeal, wry humor and coiled intensity.  As Amleth, however, Skarsgård is forced to subdue all of his best acting qualities to play a character who has no sense of humor, no charisma and no self-awareness.  I could go so far as to say that Skarsgård probably was the wrong person to portray Amleth, but in all fairness, given what he has to work with, it would take a special kind of actor to make a part like this work.  

Comparing Northman to Conan the Barbarian (1982) is inevitable.  Differences in plot aside, the background and journey of Amleth and Conan are so similar they could be brothers.  The portrayal of the two characters, however, couldn’t be more different.  Schwarzenegger, under the direction of John Milius, brought his relatively thin character to life with the force of his gregarious personality.  Skarsgård, who has charisma to spare, is forced to keep his–and by extension his character’s personality under wraps.

As the movie’s presumptive antagonist, Fjölnir doesn’t fare much better.  He’s cruel and mean, but also has no personality to speak of.  Unlike Gudrún, he’s never given a chance to explain his feelings about killing his brother and usurping the throne.  The movie posits that his sole motivation for his horrible acts was to bag Gudrún, at her pleading, but that justification seems weak.  The movie briefly touches on some long-simmering resentment between Fjölnir and Aurvandill, but we never learn what it was.  (There’s that missing context again.)  The backstory that he eventually lost the kingdom he usurped and was forced into exile would have been interesting to see and not just hear as exposition.  Given his actions, I felt like I should have hated Fjölnir, but I only found him to be annoying.

I kept getting the feeling that this movie got away from Robert Eggers.  His previous two movies were small-scale horror movies, and they were very effective.  The confidence Eggers has in his direction is apparent in every scene in those two films.  I didn’t get that impression with Northman.  He may have felt very passionate about the story, but his directing sensibilities just don’t mesh with the material.  His approach seemed to be to tell the story of Amleth as a horror story.  Parts of it certainly are, but the material cries out to be told on an epic scale, not as a chamber piece.

There are many scenes throughout the movie where Eggers makes directorial choices that I found baffling.  I discussed the scene where Amleth leads the raid of the village in the land of Rus earlier.  There, Eggers focuses on the horrific elements of the conflict and neglects the nuts-and-bolts aspect of an action sequence, and the result is like watching someone play a video game in God mode.  For the scene where Amleth and Olga have sex, Eggers films their coupling from a what seems like a football field away, robbing the scene of its passion and intimacy.  But why?

Several times in the movie, Eggers directs scenes with emotional confrontations with medium shots.  For example, when Fjölnir attempts to rape Olga, he films their confrontation from across the room.  Later, when Fjölnir walks into his home to find Gudrún and Gunnar lying dead on the floor, Eggers films the scene from such a distance that the emotions on Fjölnir’s face are indiscernible.  Why Eggers didn’t include a few standard close-ups in those scenes is a complete mystery to me.  Was he just not comfortable with getting up-close in these raw,  emotional moments?   Were his confounding directorial choices a way to keep a safe distance from them?

Maybe Northman just forced Eggers to go in directions he just didn’t want to go.  Northman is ultimately a curious misfire from a director who pushed himself outside of his comfort zone.  What he learned from this adventure will yield results in his next films, for sure.

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