By Maribeth Thueson
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I love a good Viking movie. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of them; most are either grossly historically inaccurate, or they do weird things like adding space aliens to the mix. It’s a pretty low bar, really; if the Vikings aren’t wearing horned helmets, the movie generally falls into the plus column.
By that measure, The Northman should be the perfect Viking movie. There’s nothing to complain about in the historical accuracy department – the costumes and sets all look right, and the people in the background are performing actual tasks. The world-building is actually extraordinary; there’s no doubt that we’ve landed in another world, suffused with magic, witches, and seers, in which people believe their lives are ruled by fate and where modern notions of morality have no place.
Plus, there are the usual Viking tropes: bloody battles, screaming warriors brandishing swords and axes, men who speak only in a growl, and a fair amount of raping and pillaging. The Northman is actually extremely violent, sometimes in particularly sadistic ways. There’s also quite a bit of nudity, though it’s mostly male, for a change. In fact, the only things director and co-writer Robert Eggers forgot to put into the movie are a logical story and a leading character with any kind of interior life.
The Northman is based on an old Scandinavian tale about the Danish prince Amleth, whose uncle kills Amleth’s father and marries his mother. If this sounds familiar, yes, Shakespeare based Hamlet on the same story. In The Northman’s case, 10-year-old Amleth (Oscar Novak) who idolizes his father, the king (Ethan Hawke), sees his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kill his father and carry off his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Fjölnir’s henchmen inexplicably let the boy escape, and he rows away in a boat, chanting a vow, “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”
Twenty years later, the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is part of a band of berserker warriors who believe themselves to be invincible in battle. They raid a village in the lands of the Rus (modern Ukraine), taking those stong enough to work to sell to slave traders and killing the rest. Amleth walks through the village in a four-minute tracking shot, slicing away at people as he goes, an icy machine of rage and aggression. Clearly, he has no qualms about killing people, so he surely must have already killed Fjölnir, right?
Well, no. He actually has to be reminded of his vow by the Seeress (a spooky Björk, the best thing in the movie), whom he sees in a vision, spinning his life thread. She reminds him of his vow and tells him his fate is to kill Fjölnir in a river of fire.
And wouldn’t you know, the very next person he talks to mentions that the slaves will be sold to Fjölnir, whose kingdom has been stolen by another king and who has fled to Iceland. So Amleth stows away on the slave ship and heads to Iceland to take his vengeance. Along the way he hooks up with another slave, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slav who claims to take power from the land. They have common cause in wanting to defeat Fjölnir, he to fulfill his destiny, and she to win her freedom. And lo! There is a smoking volcano just up the valley from Fjölnir’s farmstead. So now Amleth will kill Fjölnir immediately, right?
Well, no. Like his namesake, Hamlet, Amleth dithers and dallies for so long you’re tempted to yell at the screen, “Just kill him, already!” Amleth has plenty of opportunities, and even a weapon – a mystical sword which he wins from an un-dead mound dweller in a scene that could have come straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
But he’s full of excuses. When he confronts Gudrún and learns that his perception of her has always been drastically wrong, he comes within a hair’s breadth of killing her, but refrains because, as he says, he doesn’t kill women, a statement which seems unbelievable, considering his history. (Kidman is searing in the scene, as she reveals what she has had to do merely to survive in this world of violent men.) And Amleth claims that he can’t kill Fjölnir yet because it is his destiny to kill him in a river of fire, an opportunity which has not yet presented itself. Meanwhile, he cannot commit himself fully to Olga, even though she is the first person he’s ever felt close to.
As compelling as this world is, however, there are problems in addition to Amleth’s hesitation that keep it from being a great movie. Amleth, it turns out, is damaged beyond the power of Olga to heal him, but you only find that interesting tidbit out at the end. For the rest of the movie, he’s a cypher, mechanically on track to his destiny. His facade starts to crack during his confrontation with Gudrún, but it’s not enough to open him up to other possibilities. But that bit of emotionalism is when he is the most interesting. It’s a pity there couldn’t have been more of that type of character development earlier. And just what makes Fjölnir so bad anyway? Is his behavior any worse than Amleth’s? He actually seems like a not-so-bad guy, doting on his wife and sons. There’s no moral imperative for killing him, of course; it’s fate.
There are some scenes which are ridiculous and illogical. The men take on the spirits of animals by acting like dogs or wolves and smearing blood on themselves, which comes across as just plain silly. Before the battle, the berserkers hype themselves up by howling like wolves and dancing by a fire, with choreography that makes them look like an awkward kick line. And when Amleth and Fjölnir finally do confront each other – by appointment, yet – they fight naked as rivers of lava run by right next to them, yet neither of them is burned (although it does look cool).
Shakespeare was wise enough to leaven Hamlet with some humor, but The Northman is unrelentingly grim. There’s just no letup from the heaviness and the testosterone overload. Kidman has that one great scene, but Anya Taylor-Joy, although she’s no pushover, is more of an appendage than anything else. And besides a few cameos from other women (Björk, a priestess, a Valkyrie) there’s precious little estrogen. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss that there’s a shield maiden who says one line at the end of the pillage in the village.
So is this the definitive Viking movie? Sadly, no. The film’s flaws are too great for it to claim that title. But it’s still awfully good, and certainly fulfills the blood-lust and magic-lust of your inner Viking wanna-be. And does Amleth ever kill Fjölnir? You remember the end of Hamlet, don’t you? Everybody dies.