The Northman

northmanTwentieth-century softies like me may experience a film like Robert Eggers’ The Northman as a contemptuous but invigorating slap in the chops. Life was hard in AD 895, and every frame of the movie is there to show it, in all its magic-hour, snow-flecked beauty and all its torn-flesh, bloody-mud-puddle ugliness. Like Eggers’ two previous films — The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which I adore — The Northman devotes itself to recreating a time long past, along with its moods, attitudes and details of day-to-day life. It would be easy indeed to parody The Northman, with all its shrieking madmen and howling to the black sky and chanting in the Old Languages. But Eggers offers up this material so earnestly, and with such carefully crafted art, that to lampoon it would feel callow and vile.

I’m about 75% on board with the film — it runs a bit long, and we start to feel it with about half an hour left to go — but I’m glad it was made, and I hope its poor showing at the box office won’t put Eggers in movie jail. This is the sort of expensive, excessive fantasia that sniffs around in deeper, darker nooks of cinema largely forgotten about and lifts the art form. The Northman is loud, with a brooding score and metal clashing against metal, but it has more in common with silent film than with anything else around. Based on the legend of Amleth (which in turn spawned Hamlet), it seems to want to take us back to the beginning of drama, or at least the birth of many tropes. It tells the most elemental of stories, the one about the son avenging his father, and grafts a lot of pagan strangeness and gore onto it.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is out to get his stinky uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and married his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). For years, Amleth grunts and growls and readies himself for the moment when he realizes his oath: “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Amleth’s entire life becomes about that, after which, he guesses, he’ll just kill himself or something, because his life will no longer have purpose. Amleth does pursue a brief interest in the young sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proposes another level of purpose to Amleth’s life. But mainly his fate seems to be mired in rage and pain and blood. It may take a little bit before a viewer recognizes that Amleth as presented here isn’t really the hero, just the protagonist.

The images appear to be charged by the post-human energies of spirits and fae. The shadows and scents of femininity seem to reduce these crude, brutal men to animals, and the women, dealing with this off-the-scale-toxic masculinity, are in danger of becoming inhuman wretches themselves. Queen Gudrún, for instance, certainly comes across as vindictive and cruel, but to what extent have the culture of 895 and its sickening rules (rape is no big deal, it’s part of every king’s victory lap) made her that way? There are other men, though, noncombatants, fools, he-witches, who have wiser heads — until they lose them to someone with a hotter head, plus a sword. The Northman seems simple, or simplistic, until we start turning it around and peering at it. 

The sensibilities we see in the movie are very remote from ours. We could almost be watching aliens. Sometimes the film has a harshly musical Icelandic vibe; Eggers recruits the Icelandic poet Sjón as his co-scripter here, and puts Björk in majestic electrocuted-penguin garb as a character called the Seeress. As I said, the narrative begins to drag a little, but the compositions and the colors of night and the cast’s dedication to exploring long-gone behaviors — all of this is first-rate. The Northman might be my least favorite Eggers project, but that means nothing — oh, it’s only a B+, or maybe even an A-. Eggers goes big here, and uses paints he hasn’t used before. His three films feel alike, in that they could all unfold in the same uncanny, demon-haunted universe at different times, but they’re also very distinct accomplishments. Eggers is still a major reason to stay interested in whatever movies are becoming.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best

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