Robert Eggers’ The Northman: A Review
If you’ve seen The Northman’s trailer then I have bad news, you’ve seen 95 percent of Alexander Skarsgard’s script. Like a didgeridoo desperately trying to break away from a single note, he repeats:
“I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you Fjolnir.”
If this sounds awfully like Hamlet that’s because it’s based on the same legend of Amleth – set mostly in Britain – that inspired Shakespeare’s tale, as well as the bleak nineties flop, The Prince of Jutland (1994). Yet whereas Hamlet was full of introspection, and Christian Bale’s script was so bad it verged on parody, Amleth is more a skull-crusher in the Andre the Giant (Princess Bride, 1987) tradition.
In short, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) seeks to avenge the death of his father, the king Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), based mainly on a fond childhood memory. This involved taking drugs, barking on all-fours, envisaging a blut und boden Odinic family tree (which might have worked better had the future antagonist cum usurper been a slave or foreigner rather than the king’s brother) and reminding one another that to love someone meant killing for them.
The king is – one could argue, a victim of his own murderous philosophy – killed by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) who then marries Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman). Escaping the slaughter, Amleth goes to Rus where he becomes – yes, you guessed it – very good at killing in a beserker gang, the wolfs of Odin. Perhaps an omen of future monotony can be discerned here, most notably when a greybeard tells the protagonist that he “always knew [Amleth] had a heart of iron.” In essence, Amleth remains a killer automaton for the film’s 136-minute duration.
Even Bjork the Icelandic singer – dressed as a scarecrow, goddess, or seer, it’s not clear – considers it necessary to step in and remind Amleth that killing people isn’t a personality; that life – maybe code for “this film” – needs a plot, a mission. A startled Amleth then poses as a slave (by branding himself) and joins the cargo of a ship bound for Iceland where Fjolnir runs a farm after king Harold Fairhair bumped him off his stolen kingdom.
On board Amleth meets a Slavic witch, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and they switch from hostile to amorous quicker than it takes dogs to sniff one another’s bottoms. Attempting to flirt, she boasts about making lethal potions but Amleth remains unimpressed with her killing skills. He’s off for a weapon forged by dwarves (like Brokkr, Eitri or Regin in Norse mythology). Cue a ruckus with a draugr – the barrow-dweller of English folklore – in mountain halls which invite Gimli to pop up at any moment. After his titanic opponent falls (spoiler: the opponents tend to get bigger rather than craftier) Amleth possesses an odd amalgam of the Norse blade of Angurvadal (“Stream of Anguish”) as its runes blaze when it senses that blood is about to be drawn, and Mistilteinn, which was guarded by the draugr Thrain but taken – after a fight – by Hromundr, a Danish warrior.
Now our Norse equivalent of the tin-man, Amleth, is trapped on Fjolnir’s dull farm with a fussy sword that can’t be used until it senses its Kairos (critical, fateful moment) is near. For a while the two lovers have fun torturing, poisoning and fighting on an estate built on such vices. But even Skarsgard eventually tires and hams up the role by remembering he is physically “big.” In these scenes, he melodramatically stoops like Hodor in Game of Thrones and his facial expressions begin to take after a startled blobfish.
The colossal Amleth waits on fate like a fat man anticipating a tinder right-swipe. Sadly, this robs him of any heroic qualities. He resembles nothing so much as a bureaucrat with a divine talent for killing. Ultimately, he’s watching the clock, twiddling his thumbs for the – all too absent – Norns (the Greek Moirai) to send a chit. As viewers sense Amleth can’t or won’t diverge from his path, a creeping sense of detachment or distance from the events – or even the death of characters – becomes unavoidable.
That’s not to say the overall package isn’t impressive. The inky landscapes, shot mostly in Iceland and Ireland, ensure the brutality is sodden in beauty. And the nods at Icelandic history, such as the snatching of a spear mid-flight and launching it back at the enemy (as Gunnar does in the Njals Saga), are superlative. And while the spell is occasionally broken by a variety of accents that oscillate wildly between Northern English and Scandinavian, for the most part the show is kept on the road by an intense script (which is often as poetic as the Elder Edda), as well as a primal score.
Only Nicole Kidman – and maybe Anya (the witch) – truly elevates this plot above its low-key bestial energy. While others are flung around like ragdolls by Amleth’s bouncer-like fate, only his mother brings Shakespearian depth and the balls to tell him he’s living out a fantasy narrative; he’s simply more unique in his ability to enforce it.
After some more intentional and accidental killing, Amleth is ready for his final kill. Fjolnir is the boss-man of video-games. He doesn’t just kill in Amleth’s robotic manner, he glowers too. Don’t mistake this for psychological depth, however. There are no grand soliloquies in the final scene. Instead, a volcanic backdrop ensures the two eschew traditional clothing in favour of loincloths, garments which have the unusual effect of turning Norse warriors into Olympic pankratiasts.
Some of this is undoubtedly refreshing. The lack of irony or a meta-narrative is reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ past films such as The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) where harsh surroundings, uncanny events and haunted feelings trump explicit shocks or easy applause. Eggers is a genius at evoking slices of history in such minute detail that the faith or weltanschauung which glued it all together simply manifests and emanates like light from the sun. He has no time for the sentimental, knowing “Hollywood treatment.” Thoughts, places and feelings stay true to their period and give the material a potent, if sometimes humdrum, grounding. It also has the slightly disorientating effect of revealing a world without explaining it.
This eccentric mix of bewilderment and fate climaxes when Amleth finds himself mortally wounded on his knees towards the end of his final duel with the Freyr-worshipping Fjolnir. As he shudders violently and lets his eyes glaze into a middle distance, the audience palpably begs for a handful of words on the futility of revenge, the madness of hatred or any window on to his soul. But instead he is mute like an animal. Part of this is to be respected. We have grown fat on the novelistic tradition, which lets us live in others minds and makes events more literary than they are truly. Yet the result is undeniable, in cinema at least there’s a flatness.
Instead of catharsis, a restlessness burbles. Especially as a Valhalla-bound Valkyrie – who looks suspiciously like Barbie on a pony – operates as a clunky deus ex machina. Admittedly, it’s not clear whether my distaste has its origins in aberrantly bad graphics (I half-suspected Valhalla’s portal-pudenda was going to discharge the Care Bears rather than welcome Amleth) or the fact it’s hard to accept the automaton gets such a happy ending.
Whether audiences side with the glamour or emptiness of the violence reveals more about themselves than anything else. On the positive side, The Northman ditches anodyne renderings of Norse myths as if they were children’s tales. Moreover, it also shunts aside Enlightenment cant about the noble savage.
But this is not enough. It leaves too much room for viewers to do a “Tacitus” and laud the ebullience and ferocity of pagan life; it also leaves too much space for pagans or nihilists to romanticize the violence of honour culture, which is ultimately the weak point of the Christian universe – the Achilles heel to a pagan dart – thanks to its historical celebration of chivalry. Yet while honour in the Christian scheme sits in the lower end of the moral register, quickly giving way to agape, self-sacrifice and the humility to see all egos as sharing in the same delusions of Original Sin, The Northman frames it is as a gloss on blood feuds.
More cynically, from a metaphysical perspective, the glamour of honour and violence is also deployed as a key to unlocking post-Christian audiences to the viability of a non-Christian future. In reality, Amleth – the revenge machine – couldn’t be more different to Galahad, the kenotic knight, whose Holy Grail is not set up in opposition to chivalry but as its fulfillment.
To conclude in a suitably polemical vein, just as there’s a tendency within Catholicism (unlike Orthodoxy, which focuses on theosis) to make unreal, immaterial angels of men, so this film strikes a bleak, sullen note in trying to take pride in our deepest animal drives. Neither are acceptable.