The Northman is an excellent epic/adventure film that sometimes plays like a
brainier and more morally ambiguous pagan version of Braveheart or Gladiator.
Viewers might also notice many plot similarities to the play, Hamlet as well as
some significant differences But this film is not a straight adaptation of
Shakespeare’s play, it is based on the tale of Amleth, which Shakespeare based
his play on. The tale was told orally for many years then written down by the
author Saxo Grammaticus in the book, The History of the Danes.
Despite the depiction of Game of Thrones style magic and mysticism, some
historians consider this one of the most accurate depiction of Viking culture
ever portrayed in film. This is because of both film’s gritty realism as well as
its comparatively faithful depiction of Nordic traditions and legends.
This film is set in Iceland rather than Denmark with parts shot in Ireland, and
it prominently features two members of one of Iceland’s most successful
internationally known crossover musical groups: the Avant pop group-the
Sugarcubes an Bjork who plays a seer in a costume even more outrageous than what she
usually wears in concert. While the poet and former musician, and her fellow ex
Sugar cube member, Sjon wrote the screenplay. The director, Robert Eggars met
Sjon through Bjork. Sjon has done extensive research on the Viking culture and
he is a perfect choice as co-writer.
The other talent involved in the film is equally impressive. It was made by the
comparatively new director Robert Eggars who has previously made the artier Indy
films The Witch and the Lighthouse. This is his first big budget mainstream
feature. He is also set to do a new version of Nosferatu with Willem Dafoe in
the lead which may be typecasting since Dafoe had previously played a vamp
Nosferatu in the film within a film: Shadow of the Vampire. Eggars also
co-wrote the always intriguing script of The Northman with the previously
mentioned poet named Sjon.
The film’s marvelous cast includes such distinguished actors as Alexander
Skarsgarrd (True Blood), Anya Taylor-Joy (Queen’s Gambit) as well as
Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Ethan Hawke. Taylor-Joy had previously worked
with Eggars in The Witch and Willem Dafoe was in his second film,
Lighthouse. It seems like Eggars is slowly building a repertory company like
Robert Altman and Wes Anderson.
At the film’s start , we are introduced to Amleth’s dad, with the catchy name,
King Aurvandil War Raven (Ethan Hawkel, who is also currently the bad guy in
Moon Knight.) He is not exactly father of the year. He neglects his wife (Nicole
Kidman) and when she wants to make love after a long separation, and he tells
her his greatest desire is to die in battle so that he can happily fight forever
in Valhalla. In one of the most impressive and bizarre scenes after lapping up a
hallucinogenic substance he fights his son in a ritualistic dream battle
sequence which seems like an initiation to create a passing on of the regal
power. Then he sees his relatives hanging from trees. The viewer is left to
wonder if this is a warning of a likely future or an immutable destiny.
Fjolnir (this story’s equivalent to Claudius) savagely slays the king for his
thrown (in the play Hamlet it implies Claudius kills him with gossip). The
king’s son, Amleth, witnesses the whole thing and vows to get revenge for both
his father’s death and his mom’s ravishing by the hordes after Fjolnir’s death
(they pick her up after the fight like she is a sack of potatoes).
The female characters are often eerily enigmatic and fascinating. Nicole Kidman
plays Gudrin a is shockingly sinister spin on Gertrude from Hamlet who became
embittered because she was basically the spoils of war to two kings and was
treated like a trophy. The before mentioned Bjork plays an outer worldly blind
seer who puts Amleth on his path, but she also warns about the terrible personal
costs he might pay for his revenge mission. Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the young
woman that Amleth bonds with and eventually falls for . The pretty and
free-spirited woman helps him plot the eventual destruction of their sadistic
captors. But at one point the gods (sending the message through the seer) have
warned Amleth will have to choose between his love and need for revenge.
At one point, Amleth is captured by Fjolnir’s tribe which are oppressive slave
traders who love to treat their human property. The film differs from the Hamlet
play again because despite killing the king someone else was able to become
ruler before he was able to take command.
In one scene the film depicts what may have been the real-life origin of the
werewolf legends. Amleth joins a group of animalistic nomads and they dress up
in wolf pelts and howl at moon then then they bite other people in a frenzy and
even drink blood. This scene has its precedents in Nordic history and legend. In
The Saga of the Volsungs a father and son find out wolf pelts have the power to
transform people into wolves for ten days. The father-son put on the pelts,
became wolves, and went on a murderous spree in the forest.
I am sure the violence will be too much for some viewers, sometimes this film
veers very close to horror. However the action scenes are well shot and the violence
is depicted in a much more convincing manner than most American action films. I
still maintain that aside from some of the work of Tarantino and Rodriquez all
of the best action films are made in Asia. I would argue that its willingness
to risk going too far sometimes is part of what makes the film so special.
The best thing about The Northman is that rather than try to psychologically
explain the characters or depict modern or PC versions of them this film makes
its characters as exotic, unknowable and brutal as possible, and the film really
makes you feel like you have totally entered an alien landscape. I have not felt
this way during a film since David Lynch's Dune, which is a quite an accomplishment.