Disclaimer: This “review” is better to read after you have seen the movie since it contains spoilers. If you like well-acted and skilfully directed action epics with beautiful cinematography, I think you will like The Northman. But if you are a fan of Robert Egger’s previous movies, The Witch and The Lighthouse, you might be disappointed.
At first, I was hesitant about whether or not to watch this movie. I’m as interested in Viking-themed films as I am in movies featuring kitchen appliances, although the performance of the refrigerator in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, moved me to tears. However, the fact that The Northman (2022) was directed by Robert Eggers, whose horror movies The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), are absolute masterpieces, made me reconsider.
The story is basically Hamlet, which is obvious from the start. The main character is named Amleth for fuck sake. But to be fair, both Hamlet and The Northman are based on the same story. The saga of Amleth that was told in Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), written by Saxo Grammaticus around 1200, it contains several books and was finished in 1208. So, Hamlet is really an anagram of Amleth and not the other way around. But I don’t think it would be all that controversial to claim that Hamlet, by ye olde Billy Shakespeare, is more well known. The uncle kills the boy’s father and marries the boy’s mother. Boy vows to avenge his father. It’s your classic tragedy; the characters cannot escape their fate and everybody dies in the end.
I had a hard time taking it seriously for the first twenty minutes. It comes off as overly theatrical and when the young Amleth walks in on his mother, played by Nicole Kidman, I almost busted out laughing when I heard the accent. It reminded me of how Scandinavians talk when they are portrayed in Hollyvådd. I thought I was in for a two-hour long, testosterone-drenched bro-fest, where everyone talked like the Keepers of the Continuum Transfunctioner from Dude Where’s My Car while cos-playing Vikings.
Thankfully, I was wrong. The tone of the movie really sets when Amleth, played by Alexander Skarsgård, has grown up, after escaping the murder of his father. The scene when they raid a village, the absolute horrors of war, if you could call it that, become clear. The terror and suffering that it causes, a lesson humanity has yet to learn. Maybe the story will deepen and our hero might actually start reflecting on what revenge actually entails, you know, like in Hamlet? No, he won’t and this is as deep as The Northman will go on the subject. And this is the big problem I have with it. There are two main themes in The Northman; revenge, and fatalism, but they are never really explored or made problematic, either through the narrative or the characters themselves. After Amleth fails to avenge his father and is captured by his uncle, some birds set him free and he is saved by Olga of the Birch Forest, played by Anya Taylor-Jay. Together they escape on a boat. But on the boat, he realizes that she is pregnat… parganat… pergananat… pregnant with twins, so he jumps ship and swims to shore, an understandable move by the way. His reasoning for this, however, is that his children will never be safe as long as he has not killed his uncle. Before he was captured, Amleth had his uncle’s beloved son so the uncle now made his own vow of revenge. Let the final boss fight begin! The final battle takes place in a volcano or something after Amleth has killed his mother and other cousin. It ends in a draw, I guess. They both die and Amleth is carried by a Valkyrie to Valhalla.
So what’s the moral of the story? You cannot escape your fate (unless you don’t get off the fucking boat). And if you embark on a path of revenge you start a cycle that won’t end until everyone is dead. This does not necessarily make for a bad story but in The Northman, it comes off as: Don’t even try to change anything! Fatalism wins and your ego is all that matters and fuck everyone else. But hey! At least you get to go to the great feast in Valhalla. And when have promises of rewards in the afterlife ever led to something bad?
But other than that, it’s a pretty good movie.