The Northman (2022) Director: Robert Eggers
“Evil begets evil…”
In another masterfully striking cinematic feast, Robert Eggers turns to the legendary tale of Amleth (the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet) as the epic Viking aesthetic continues its contemporary revival. Having been impressed with Eggers’s previous two films, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), and looking forward to his forthcoming adaptation of Nosferatu, I was eager to see The Northman, and it did not disappoint. This is a tale of brutal Viking revenge in the form of one man’s epic odyssey. Sadly, it was a financial flop despite presenting incredible cinematography, a great score, and great performances all around. My one quibble with the film concerns the odd effects used in various intermittent visions of the future, but The Northman is still an extraordinary picture.
It begins in the year AD 895. The Viking King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns home from his conquests to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and son Amleth (Oscar Novak). There is an unsettling sense of elemental pagan magic in this film. This world is as vast as it is terrifying –only the truly strong and vicious survive. One night during a Nordic ritual (featuring Willem Dafoe as Heimir the fool), Amleth pledges complete loyalty to his father, to avenge him at all cost. Shortly thereafter, Aurvandill is attacked and beheaded by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) in a coup d’état. The village is ransacked as Amleth narrowly escapes on the open sea headed for the land of the Rus (Russia).
Years later, we find an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as part of a marauding band of berserker Vikings, raiding and pillaging towns, until one day a temple seer calls upon him to avenge his father. Thus, he disguises himself as a Christian slave and travels across the sea where he is taken into the house of Fjölnir in Iceland, who has since lost his stolen kingdom. He has also taken Amleth’s mother as his own. One night, he meets a mysterious shaman who channels the severed head of Heimir the fool (in a fascinating parody of Sir Yorick’s skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Upon the full moon, Amleth battles the undead Mound Dweller and wins a prized sword which will be used by Amleth to exact his revenge, according to a dark prophecy. Gradually, Amleth garners the favor of Fjölnir’s house, and he falls in love with fellow slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). In time, Amleth reveals his true identity to his mother, but she shockingly claims that Amleth was conceived by rape and that she was actually party to King Aurvandill downfall. She draws stark comparisons to Clytemnestra or Lady Macbeth.
Olga becomes pregnant with twins, and she and Amleth try to escape until Amleth realizes he can never truly be free of Fjölnir. He returns and slaughters Fjölnir’s entire family –carving out Fjölnir’s son’s heart and then killing his own mother– before Amleth and Fjölnir duel in a fiery nude battle at the edge of a volcano (“the Gates of Hel”). The bloody fight ends with Fjölnir beheaded but Amleth is also killed. The film ends as Amleth is whisked off to the gates of Valhalla amidst a vision of Olga raising their twins –one of whom will become queen.
Rife with ancient Nordic mythology, fabled superstitions, and dark elemental brutality, The Northman exposes the folly of revenge. This is not the brooding ennui-ridden Hamlet of Shakespeare. Instead, this is a hunching brute, a ferocious, remorseless killer –a man who carries out the bloodlust of familial revenge, and commits the grave act of matricide, only to bring a plague upon himself. He cannot escape his own fate. It is an ominous reminder of the depths of human nature, and the hideous shadow of the premodern world which still looms over us today. The Northman is not a classic hero’s journey. In a more predictable narrative, Amleth might have conquered Fjölnir and ruled his kingdom alongside Olga, but instead he finds his quest for vengeance somewhat confusing. Should he stay and fight? Or leave in peace? Perhaps Fjölnir was not the brutal scheming uncle he remembered as a child. Perhaps he was simply persuaded by Amleth’s conniving and seemingly a-moral mother. Perhaps vengeance does not offer the sweet gratification Amleth had once anticipated.