The Northman (2022) Review

The Northman (2022) Director: Robert Eggers

“Evil begets evil…”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book XV

At the beginning of Book XV, the narrator of Tom Jones gives an interesting commentary on the nature of Virtue in which he praises the ancient Epicureans for their claim that Wisdom constitutes the chief good. However, he notes that Virtue does not necessarily lead to human happiness. This is evidenced in the likes of Tom Jones.

A gentleman named Lord Fellamar has been on an extended stay at Lady Bellaston’s house and he has quickly fallen in love with Sophia, despite her lingering love for a most lowly foundling: Tom Jones. Lady Bellaston devises a ruse over dinner in which another person claims Tom Jones has killed a man named Colonel Wilcox in a duel. Upon hearing this faux news, Sophia faints, thus proving she remains smitten with Tom. Lady Bellaston has been trying to push Lord Fellamar and Sophia together so she can then pursue Tom Jones freely. In fact, she has been encouraging Fellamar to rape Sophia in order to force her hand in marriage. To persuade him, Lady Bellaston cites classical examples like Helen of Troy and the Sabine women.

This leads to a mix-up one evening as Lord Fellamar attempts to rape Sophia after she strongly rejects him, but Sophia is saved only by her drunken father who storms into the room and demands that she marry Blifil (a confused Lord Fellamar believes Squire Western is referring to him). As it turns out, it was Mrs. Fitzpatrick who revealed the whereabouts of Sophia to her father. Squire Western then takes Sophia away and locks her up. Tom receives all this news from Mrs. Honour, until Lady Bellaston arrives and begins flirting with Tom but this soon erupts into a conflict between Mrs. Honour and Lady Bellaston.

Next, comes the wedding between Nancy and Nightingale (Tom serves as father to Nancy at the wedding). A plump and wealthy woman named Arabella Hunt then proposes to Tom, but despite considering the ease of that much wealth, and he learns that Black George is working as a servant in Squire Western’s flat in London. Unfortunately, the address remains a mystery.

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

Refections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book XIV

The narrator of Tom Jones offers some reflections on how modern critics have entered the Republic of Letters, however these modern critics are perhaps not as knowledgeable as they claim. For example, great writers like Aristotle or Cicero or Virgil. “For instance let us suppose that Homer and Virgil, Aristotle and Cicero, Thucydides and Livy could have met all together, and have clubbed their several Talents to have composed a Treatise on the Art of Dancing” (479). The narrator praises the ancients over the vulgarity of the modern critics who don silly wigs and lace and embroidery, and thus appear like a “comic class” (480).

Returning to the narrative, Tom Jones receives two threatening letters from Lady Bellaston before she suddenly arrives unannounced with her dress in disarray. She demands to know if Tom has been faithful to her, but then Mrs. Honour arrives unexpectedly. Tom hides Lady Bellaston in his room while Mrs. Honour complains about Lady Bellaston inviting men to her home and she hands Tom a letter from Sophia. Shortly hereafter, Lady Bellaston realizes that Sophia will always ‘possess the first place in Jones’s affections.’ Tom is then dismissed from his host’s house while Lady Bellaston and Sophia intend to maintain their separate ruses.

Tom’s troubles continue between Partridge, Nightingale, Nancy, Partridge, and Sophia. For the remainder of Book XIV, Tom becomes ensconced in Nightingale’s arranged marriage contra his love for Nancy Miller. It is a rather silly tangent which serves as a parallel to Tom’s own struggle between his love for Sophia, despite the fact that he is not an upper-class gentleman by birth. Book XIV concludes as Mrs. Honour arrives with bad news about Sophia, but this subject will be addressed in the following book.  

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

Star Trek: Season 3, Episode Five “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

Stardate: 5630.7 (2268)
Original Air Date: October 18, 1968
Writer: Jean Lisette Aroeste
Director: Ralph Senensky

“A madman got us into this
and it’s beginning to look as if only a madman can get us out.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Enterprise has been assigned to convey the Medusan ambassador to the Federation back to his home planet. The Medusans are unusual alien creatures –their thoughts are said to be the “the most sublime in the galaxy” while their physical appearance is exactly the opposite. They are formless and apparently hideous, causing total madness to any human who simply catches a glimpse. While the Medusans beam aboard the Enterprise, Kirk and the others leave the transporter room as Spock remains behind wearing a unique visor intended to block any maddening effects caused by sight of the Medusan ambassador. A female telepath named Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur) beams aboard –she has studied on the planet Vulcan– and alongside her is the ambassador named Kollos, though he remains enclosed inside a protective vehicle. They are also joined by Larry Marvick (David Frankham).

The Enterprise speeds away at Warp Factor 2 while Spock requests the opportunity to exchange greetings with the ambassador. Later over dinner, they discuss Dr. Jones’s work with Kollos –how can she work alongside an ambassador who has the potential to drive men mad? Spock recalls the “outdated” human notion, which is derived from the ancient Greeks, that what is good must also be beautiful. In fact, ugliness has its utility, too. Then, Dr. Jones suddenly receives a telepathic apprehension that someone in the room is having murderous thoughts. Later, it is revealed to be Larry Marvick. He is in love with Dr. Jones and attempts to kill the ambassador, but when he pulls out his phaser, the ambassador drives Larry mad in a blinding flash of light.

Larry Marvick then runs amok aboard the ship, attacking crewmen and commandeering the engineering bay from Scotty. The Enterprise then rapidly veers off course at Warp factor 8.5 until it soon lies derelict in uncharted space, trapped inside a completely unknown void. Larry then dies following his fit of insanity, and since it would be risky for the Enterprise to use its warp drive, Kirk suggests the Medusan ambassador can help them navigate back across the barrier of this space-time continuum. Kirk decides to distract Dr. Jones with flirtatious conversation, while Spock attempts a mind-meld with Kollos.

Despite Dr. Jones’s protestations, later on the bridge, Spock completes the mind-meld with Kollos which leads him to stroll about the room, smiling as he greets his fellow crewmen (this scene showcases the true versatility of Leonard Nimoy’s acting prowess). Then Spock, along with the conjoined mind of Kollos, successfully completes the starship maneuver such that the Enterprise escapes stasis by crossing the barrier. A huge sigh of relief falls over the crew. The mind of Kollos begins marveling at humanoid bodies –the simplicity impresses him, yet the sheer complexity of the mind baffles him. But sadly, in the process of transferring Kollos back into his protective encasing, Spock is driven mad when he accidentally neglects to use his visor. In the end, it is up to Dr. Miranda Jones to use her special connection with Kollos to rescue Spock and the Enterprise completes its mission of transporting Kollos to his destination. In the transporter room, both Kirk and Spock give a fond farewell to Dr. Jones –Kirk hands her a flower, while Spock gives the Vulcan salute and says, “live long and prosper.”  

I was under the impression that Season 3 contains some of the worst of Trek, but thus far I have been surprised. Color me impressed. Even the sillier episodes have something to offer, like “Spock’s Brain” or “And the Children Shall Lead.” In “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” we find an intriguing premise, top-notch performances, and some impressive cinematography, such as the use of fisheye lenses and first-person, hand-held camerawork to highlight varying degrees of madness.

This is also a pretty solid Spock episode –all throughout the episode we are left to wonder about his romantic inclinations for Dr. Miranda Jones. Does he reveal his true emotions at certain points? Also, is it strictly logical for Spock to exchange greetings with the Medusan ambassador? Kollos serves as a fascinating (and cheap) alien creature as he is mostly carried around in a box like the ark of the covenant for most of episode. Still, as with episodes like “Devil in the Dark,” seeing strange new non-humanoid creatures throughout the galaxy is always great.  

Jean Lisette Aroeste (1932-2020) was a librarian at UCLA and later she worked as a reference librarian at Princeton. She submitted this script unsolicited to Star Trek, and Robert Justman read it and adapted it. The original title for this episode was entitled “Miranda” and this became one of only two television credits for Ms. Aroeste, the other being the Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays.”

Director Ralph Senensky (1923-present) was a prolific television director, including six episodes of Star Trek and he also directed an episode of The Twilight Zone (“Printer’s Devil”) among many other episodes of popular shows.

Star Trek Trivia:

  • Spock notes that Uhura’s name means “freedom” in this episode.
  • Diana Muldaur previously appeared as Science Officer Dr. Ann Mulhall in the Season 2 episode “Return to Tomorrow.” She later appears as Dr. Katherine Pulaski in 20 episodes of TNG. Both she and fellow guest actor David Frankham in this episode are still alive today as of the time of this writing (2022).  
  • There are a variety of classical allusions in this episode –the Medusa, Prospero’s daughter Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the title points to John Keats’s famous poem even though it is directly taken from the poem “Jordan” by George Herbert. Shakespeare’s “Brave new world” speech is quoted from The Tempest, and Spock quotes Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty, like the night.”
  • The container for Kollos was designed by set designer Matt Jefferies.
  • Jessica Walter was the first choice to play Miranda.
  • This was the final episode in the series to feature Eddie Paskey as Lt. Leslie according to production order, however the final episode to feature him by release date was “Elaan of Troyius.”
  • The Vulcan philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Variations” first appears in this episode.

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