Friday, June 10, 2022

"The Northman": review

We'll start with the obvious because this was part of how the movie was marketed: "The Northman," which is the story of a Viking named Amleth (a character from an actual Scandinavian legend), is the tale that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet. I've never read the original 13th-century legend by Saxo Grammaticus, so in my mind, Hamlet comes first, fortunately or unfortunately. Because Hamlet comes first, it naturally follows that this older story will have plenty in common with Shakespeare's version: an uncle's betrayal of a father, the uncle's forced marriage to a mother, and the son's revenge. As it turns out, though, the story of "The Northman" has some major differences, and as a result, I don't want to spoil those for you, although I will go over some of the parallels between this adaptation of a Viking story and Shakespeare's famous take on it.

"The Northman" is a 2022 Viking revenge drama co-written and directed by David Eggers, who gave us the visually and dramatically trippy "The Lighthouse" (reviewed here). Eggers is proving himself a force to be reckoned with, and "The Northman" showcases some surreal, trippy moments of its own—enough to make me think that, if anyone can adopt a drug-addled Tom Robbins novel to the screen, it's Eggers. (I'd love to see him attempt Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume, which is an awesome story if you're a religious-studies student.) For this movie, Eggers shared writing duties with a guy nicknamed Sjón (full name: Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, a writer, poet, and frequent Björk collaborator).

We first meet young Amleth as a boy (Oscar Novak as young Amleth) who sees his father, King Aurvandill the War Raven (remember: the ravens Thought and Memory are associated with Odin), coming home from some campaign. We also meet Amleth's mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and Aurvandill's brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang—what a name!). As per the Hamlet story, Fjölnir betrays and kills Aurvandill, thus earning himself the moniker "The Brotherless." He takes over Aurvandill's kingdom for himself, and this includes sweeping up Gudrún. His men try to kill Amleth, but the boy escapes after cutting off one pursuer's nose, and in true "Conan the Barbarian" fashion—this movie evokes plenty of other movies—we fast-forward to the adult Amleth (now a very ripped Alexander Skarsgård), who has fallen in with a different clan and has shown himself to be a formidable warrior with revenge still on his mind. The adult Amleth receives a prophecy from a witch (Björk) who says, promisingly and ominously, that he will have his revenge at the site of a lake of fire, but in the end, it's "her" adventure—that of a "maiden-king"—that will go on.

For reasons I can't spoil here, the object of Amleth's anger, Fjölnir, has moved to Iceland, and to find his uncle, Amleth disguises himself as a slave (this includes the painful self-administration of a slave's brand) and accompanies a party of slaves across the water to that remote island. While on the boat, he meets a winsome Slavic witch named Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and, over time, he grows close to her. Once in Iceland and installed as a slave on Fjölnir's land, Amleth plans his revenge with the help of Olga. According to the deal they make, Amleth breaks men's bones while Olga breaks their minds.

How this all plays out is predictable, in some ways, but unpredictable in others. The movie contains equal amounts of philosophy (in the form of fate/freedom discussions conducted in a Viking idiom) and brutish stupidity (in the form of hotheaded moments of unplanned rage as well as extremely unsubtle battle tactics). There may or may not be some magical realism involved: certain prophecies do seem to come true, and when Amleth is led to a supposedly magical blade that works only at night, it does indeed seem impossible for anyone to draw the blade from its scabbard during the day. Phantasmagorical sights punctuate the story: we see visions of Yggdrasil, the world-tree, not to mention plenty of foxes and ravens (or are they crows? I can never tell... but in Viking legends, it's ravens that dominate).

I mentioned earlier that "The Northman" evokes other works. There are definitely scenes that will remind the viewer of "Revenge of the Sith," "Excalibur," "Midsommar," Robert Zemeckis's "Beowulf," and plenty of other Viking-themed films like "The Thirteenth Warrior," "Valhalla Rising," and even the TV adaptation "American Gods" (not to mention the Marvel movies' twisted take on Viking legends, in which the gods are basically powerful space aliens). We're currently living through something of a Viking renaissance right now, what with TV shows like "The Vikings" (scoffed at by people who actually know anything about Viking culture); to that extent, "The Northman" fits right into the Zeitgeist.

The actors all take their roles seriously, and while most of the dialogue is in vaguely Scottish/Nordic-accented English, some of the dialogue is in older tongues, both Scandinavian and Slavic. Director Eggers apparently wanted his actors to be able to speak lines in foreign languages, and while I can't attest to how accurately the lines were pronounced, I can say that everyone gave it their all. The story features plenty of screaming and roaring, and a good measure of tears. Somehow, this is done without tipping over into sappy melodrama, as would happen on a Korean TV show. The brutality of "The Northman" prevents things from becoming too sentimental.

It should be noted that this isn't a true action film. While it contains plenty of action sequences, many of which are extended, one-shot takes, the movie also spends its time brooding and plotting and allowing for the aforementioned prophecies and visions. Willem Dafoe, who seems to be an Eggers favorite (Dafoe starred in "The Lighthouse"), here plays the fool/sorcerer Heimir, who is eventually killed offscreen (this isn't much of a spoiler), leading us, later on, to this film's version of the "Alas, poor Yorick" scene from Hamlet. I sometimes wonder whether Dafoe ever gets tired of playing characters who get killed, then return as ghostly voiceovers. Anyway, "The Northman" is as cerebral as it is violent, so there are many lulls in the action, but these lulls are meaningful—not boring at all.

Let's focus for a second on Ethan Hawke, whom we meet fairly briefly at the beginning of the story before he's killed off. My appreciation of Hawke as an actor has increased as Hawke has aged. I confess I hated him when he was a snot-nosed youngster. He had that irritating Backpfeifengesicht (face you wanna slap, also called a tête à claques in French—a "slaphead") back in the day, but as he's aged and become craggier, his acting has gained depth. I started liking him some years back when I saw him in "Training Day" (you need to watch the alternative ending to that film, which makes Hawke's character out to be something totally unexpected), and while I ended up not liking "First Reformed" (reviewed here), I thought Hawke was quite good in his role as a minister. In "The Northman," Hawke owns the role of the ill-fated king: he's gruff and savage, but he loves his son Amleth.

Nicole Kidman is in fine form as Gudrún, although her obvious plastic surgery makes her face a little distracting to me.* Like Robin Wright in Robert Zemeckis's "Beowulf," Kidman has to adopt that strange, quasi-Scottish accent, but she sells the part. Claes Bang as the treacherous Fjölnir also deserves mention; as Amleth discovers late in his plan to avenge his father, Fjölnir and Gudrún turn out not to be quite who Amleth thinks they are, and this fact adds layers to Fjölnir as the antagonist (as it does to Gudrún as well). And all praise be unto Alexander Skarsgård, who absolutely and convincingly incarnates the vengeful Amleth. He obviously invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in this role, and it shows. Skarsgård is at times primal and (especially around Olga) tender, but he never wavers from his goal of revenge, even after making certain disconcerting discoveries.

"The Northman" also benefits from gorgeous cinematography. The majority of the story takes place in Iceland, but actual photography happened mostly in County Antrim, Ireland, with some of the more panoramic shots being taken in Iceland. An enormous volcano dominates much of the story; I think it was mostly CGI. Apparently, the ground surrounding the volcano was filmed just outside of Belfast, so there's your "Belfast" connection for you. The land is practically a distinct character in this story; the terrain figures in prophecy and also helps determine the course of certain actions.

All in all, I'd call this another win for David Eggers. I think this is only his third feature film after "The VVitch" (which I haven't seen)** and "The Lighthouse." He seems to gravitate toward titles beginning with "The." I hope this doesn't become some sort of curse for his later films. Meanwhile, I also hope he continues to rely on solid actors like the versatile Willem Dafoe, whose role in "The Northman" is brief but impressive. As noted before, this is not a movie for action hounds; it's a thoughtful take on the typical revenge drama, and while some of it is predictable because it follows the same template as Hamlet (although, in actuality, Hamlet follows the template of the legend of Amleth), some of the story will surprise you in what directions it takes, especially if, like me, you don't know the original Amleth tale. And whether you buy into the movie's final scene is completely up to you. You might come out convinced or unconvinced by the metaphysics of the film's last moments, but I'm pretty sure you'll have enjoyed yourself.


*Plastic surgery and/or Botox seems to be the horrifying fate of most women in Hollywood who age. Men aren't immune, either: while "My Cousin Vinny" is hailed as a lawyerly masterpiece, Joe Pesci's recent-at-the-time plastic-surgery work was just as distracting then as Nicole Kidman's is now.

**I hate the annoying double-V spelling of the title, which I always pronounce "The Vivitch."


John Mac said...

Another good review. This movie does sound interesting.

So, the preceding post announces your intention to watch The Northman, and this review follows immediately. All the more impressive that you can pull these thoughts together without much time to reflect on what you've seen. Are you thinking about the review while you watch?

Kevin Kim said...

I guess I am. But there's also a rhythm and a formula to most reviews that makes it easier to structure one's thoughts. Plus, the reviews are flexible enough in format that, if I have one or more profound thoughts, I can figure out a way to insert them.

Charles said...

Yep, still want to see this someday.

Kevin Kim said...


Did you get around to "First Reformed"?

Charles said...

I did not. I guess there are a lot of films I still need to see. I really should make a list.