The Northman: Viking action and adventure
The Northman boasts a stellar cast: Alexander Skarsgård (from the famous acting clan; his brother Bill is in this movie), Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, and the innovative Björk. Much of it was filmed on location in Northern Ireland, as COVID-19 put a wrench in the initial plan of filming in Iceland, a saga in itself. The new setting is stunning. The film had a sizable budget of $90 million (although tax incentives reduced the actual cost to $70 million). Best of all, it was a new film about the Vikings. My anticipation built up, and I eagerly entered the movie theater.
The catalyst for the entire film is sparked when the adolescent Prince Gunnar (Amleth’s name at birth) played by the talented Elliot Rose sees his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), brutally murdered by his uncle Fjölnir, played by Danish actor, Claes Bang. Fjölnir orders the execution of his nephew as well. Unbeknownst to him, his nephew survives. Gunnar’s raison d’être becomes avenging his father’s murder and revenging all he lost. His obsessions drive the rest of his life and this movie.
Based on the Danish tale of Amleth, its script was written by Sjón, an Icelandic novelist and poet, and Alexander Skarsgård. Director Robert Eggers delivers an action-packed ride that drives with breakneck speed. It is divided by chapters defined by place, including Denmark, the land of the Rus, Iceland, and the final scene at the Gates of Hell. Unfortunately, no explanation was given as to why these places were significant.
A lot of historical details have been incorporated into the sets, to accurately depict Viking life, such as the Viking town and the Great Hall supported by carved wooden columns with the center hearth. The costumes are also authentic, giving me the only indication of when a new culture was being introduced. And the not-so-glamorous daily drudgery of those on the lower level of society is visceral, as well as the lack of plumbing and other modern amenities.
This film is chock-full of Viking symbolism: Odin’s raven emissaries, the dream of a valkyrie carrying Amleth to Valhalla, and the Yggdrasil tree. However, if you are not familiar with Norse mythology and religion, I am not sure you would realize that, as there is no dialogue or explanation about their significance. It was an especially wasted opportunity with the berserkers, a word that came from the Norse into the English. Also, there is so much unexplained wolf symbolism. Amleth’s own father teaches Gunnar wolf ways.
I see the lack of context problematic, and it is evidenced by reviewers’ takes. Robert Daniels writes about how the movie “demands audiences deconstruct overbearing patriarchal values …” in the Norse culture, which is not true. In the slave or thrall class, you are property, both male and female, but his conclusion totally glosses over females in Viking culture. They had a very high status, much higher before the Viking society was Christianized.
There is also a scene when Amleth, now a slave (a path he chose so he could get to Iceland, where his uncle has been living in exile) is goaded after being praised: “You can never be free.” This is untrue; thralls could be freed and often were, and there was a freed thrall status, somewhat like an indentured servant.
I expected blood and guts in this flick (full disclosure, I do not like violence), but this film has more decapitations than the reign of Henry VIII. I am a fan of The Vikings series, not the violence, but the depiction of women and the lessons they learn from those they conquered or lived with harmoniously. Living with ethnic diversity by choice is why the Vikings had an acceptance and appreciation of other cultures. I also like The Vikings’ attention to details, both in the physical, such as their clothing and architecture, as well as in the historical. The Northman has the latter, but unfortunately lacks the former.
I did ask one attendee in his 20s after the film ended what he thought. His response was, “I loved it.” We had an extensive discussion. He had expected all the violence, and it did not bother him; he relished it. So, of course there will be people who will appreciate this film.
Let me share some of the things I did like. The sound is terrific. I use this word because there is more than a score, there is chanting, recitation of poetry, battle cries, and other reverberations that surround a warrior culture. These were created by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, using both contemporary synthesizers and ancient instruments, and it will transport you.
The cinematography is beautiful, replicating the vastness and beauty of Iceland, although mostly filmed in Northern Ireland. The most luxurious piece is the love scene between Amleth and Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) immersed in a hot spring that is flanked by a backdrop of green mountains offering a cascading waterfall.
My favorite scene is when Amleth reveals his adult self to his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). The range of feelings compressed into a few minutes—recognition, love, seduction, betrayal, and rage—is deft, subtle, and palpable. This is the moment when I connected this story to Hamlet and later learned that Shakespeare’s story was inspired by the tale of Amleth.
Another scene worth noting, occurs at the film’s opening. It is a cameo by Dafoe, who plays Heimir, the fool or jester. His brief screen time adds levity and insight into what is to shortly unravel. Also, Björk, the seer, with her wheat-encircled crown, like a preening peacock, is the perfect pitch for this idiosyncratic character.
Described as a “historical epic thriller,” the film does accurately portray a specific story. It just does not represent the complexities of the society this story is based upon. There is no way the Viking culture could have been such successful traders and creators of multicultural societies ruled over broad reaches if their only value was violence.
So, to depict a fuller range of Norse society within the context of the story, including, but not limited to violence, would have added depth and truth. It is unfortunate, especially as so many new discoveries about the Vikings have been uncovered in the last decades.
The lack of complexity offers us a stereotypical view of the Vikings, like watching a mafia film and thinking it is an accurate depiction of Italian Americans. The result is a well-acted, beautifully placed, but extremely expensive missed opportunity.
Photos: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC
This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.