The Northman(4/21/2022)

Though he has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative minds in the history of world literature, most of William Shakespeare’s plays were derived from existing source stories that scholars have identified.  His most famous play, “Hamlet,” is no exception to this.  That play’s story is said to originate (possibly via some derivative works) in the legend of “Amleth” as chronicled in Saxo Grammaticus’ tome “Gesta Danorum” which was of course itself derived from existing apocryphal bits of Danish history and storytelling but is speculated to have ultimately derived from some sort of Icelandic source.  Like Shakespeare’s character, Amleth found himself having to deal with a father slain by an uncle who then married his mother and needing to find a way to get his revenge and ultimately does it by feigning madness.  Unlike Shakespeare’s character, Amleth is never really hesitant about wanting to kill the usurper uncle and there’s also some weird shit at the end about having to take multiple wives or something.  Really though the bigger differences are probably cultural.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nominally set in Denmark, but it might as well be set in Yorkshire for all Shakespeare knew about that place.  He turned what was likely a pagan Viking legend and turned it into a very courtly and Christianized story.  And this is likely what director Robert Eggers set out to correct with his new movie The Northman, which aims to “take back” the Amleth story by making it an even more savage story of revenge than even the original story.

This version of the Amleth story begins in the year 895 when Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is just an adolescent boy and his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has just returned from war to greet him and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Aurvandill is a bit weary from his raids and decides to put Amleth through a rite of passage ritual overseen by their shaman/jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe) that involves taking hallucinogens and embracing his inner animal totems and also then swearing to avenge his father if ever he were killed.  This ends up coming into play sooner rather than later as right after they emerge from their ritual the king is attacked and killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang).  Amleth escapes from the kingdom but right before he leaves he sees Fjölnir carrying away his mother.  The film then flashes forward about fourteen years to Amleth in his fighting prime having joined up with a group of berserkers who are raiding villages in Rus when he hears that his uncle had left the kingdom he’d taken over through assassination and was now taking up on the Viking frontier of Iceland.  Realizing that this was his chance to get revenge he infiltrates a slave ship heading to that farm intending to pose as a slave and plot his vengeance and along the way he meets a Rus slave woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who offers to help him in his scheme.

The Northman was directed by Robert Eggers, who may well be the most exciting American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years.  His 2015 film The Witch was a major landmark of the “A24 Horror” trend and his 2019 film The Lighthouse was one of the most formally adventurous movies to ever open on 980 screens.  It kind of seemed like he was a particularly canny horror guys but the real commonality between his movies seems to be his interest in history and folklore combined with some boldly uncompromising instincts during what would seem to be a highly risk averse era in American filmmaking.  The Northman is in some ways less complicated than his previous works in that it is essentially an action movie with a revenge arc as its backbone, but in other ways this is his biggest risk yet in that he’s playing with a serious budget this time around.  Reports have suggested that Focus Features made this movie for something in the range of 70 to 90 million dollars, so this isn’t a movie that can just live or die by being a cool indie, it’s in many ways a film that will decide both if he can work on large canvases going forward and also frankly if Hollywood sub-studios can afford to fund trippy historical epics even if they seemingly have a lot of bankable violence and action in them.

Robert Eggers is clearly something of a history buff but he’s not someone who’s interested in events so much as he’s interested in getting under the skin of the past cultures he depicts and rather than expose their beliefs as quaint he kind of engages with things on their level.  Satan was very much at work in The Witch, nautical superstitions were to be taken very seriously in The Lighthouse, and here in The Northman Viking notions of fate and honor are vitally important though not completely unquestioned.  I would almost compare it to 300 in the way that it kind of goes along with the ancient mindset of its characters, but the film’s visual style is way more earthy and realistic even if it isn’t afraid to kick some ass occasionally.  Audiences willing to go along with some occasional tippyness can enjoy this movie as little more than a 21st Century Conan the Barbarian but its interest in deconstructing the Amleth story while still respecting it does I think elevate things: there’s a twist to the whole story at about the two thirds point which interestingly reminded me less of “Hamlet” than of an even older Greek Tragedy that I won’t name so as to avoid spoilers.  Still, the film walks a tricky line, one could view it as a dumbed down version of what Eggers has done elsewhere and maybe be a bit disappointed in it or you can view it as one of the smartest and most ambitious mainstream action movies Hollywood has made in ages, which is maybe to overrate it.  Ultimately of the three Robert Eggers movies it’s my third favorite, but man, if you’re going to sell out even a little this is definitely the right way to do it.

**** out of Five


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