A review of Robert Eggers’ The Northman
Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University
Vikings have been appearing on the big and small screen in feature-length and made-for-television films for over a hundred years, and the more than 80 entries in any Viking filmography include a decidedly mixed bag of cinematic offerings. There are would-be Hollywood Viking blockbusters, such as Richard Fleischer’s 1958 The Vikings—a star-vehicle for Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine—and Jack Cardiff’s 1963 The Long Ships, which featured Richard Widmark as a Viking warlord matching wits with a Moorish prince, played by Sidney Poitier, to find a fabled bell made of gold. One of the better critical responses to The Long Ships is simply the title of an essay by Don Hoffman, “Guess Who’s Coming to Plunder?” There are campy Viking B-movies, such as Roger Corman’s 1957 The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent and the unintentionally hysterically funny 1971 Turkish film Tarkan Viking Kani directed by Mehmet Asain. There are animated Viking films for children, such as the three films (2010, 2014, and 2019) in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. There are serious Viking art-house films from Hrafn Gunnlauggsson and other Icelandic and Scandinavian directors that summon up a more authentic medieval Nordic past. There are Viking horror films and sci-fi features, such as Marcus Nispel’s 2007 Pathfinder and Howard McCain’s 2008 Outlander. There are cinematic attempts to dramatize encounters between indigenous people in North American and the Vikings who landed in Vinland around 1000 CE, such as Charles B. Pierce’s 1978 The Norsemen and Pam Berger’s 1994 Kilian’s Chronicle, or to chart Viking travels into Slavic territories and to other destinations even farther east, such as Richard Thorpe’s 1960 The Tartars and Jerzy Hoffman’s 2003 When the Sun Was God. Mighty Thor has popped up as a superhero in the Marvell cinematic franchise. There are even Viking comedies, such as Herodes Falsk’s 1983 Prima Veras Saga am Olav Hellige and Terry Jones’s 1989 Erik the Viking. And there are Viking films that portray a world waist deep in blood, the most violent until now being Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Valhalla Rising.
Adding to this varied Viking cinematic history, we now have Robert Eggers’ The Northman, which according to pre- and post-release press notices intends to be “the most accurate” Viking film ever made—there is not a horned helmet in sight. The plot is simple, and familiar enough. A young prince vows vengeance against his uncle who has murdered his father and then abducted and married his mother. The film’s source is the Ur-version of the tale of Hamlet, also the source of an earlier, little-known and much less ambitious Viking film, Gabriel Axel’s 1993 Prince of Jutland. Eggers shot his film in Northern Ireland and in Iceland, and the scenery is breathtaking. The cinematography succeeds in capturing the beauty and the horror of the story that the film tells. The musical score is always haunting.
King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns home from a successful raid loaded down with chests of treasure and trailed by a column of collared slaves. Ravens will play a continued important role in the film. He is greeted by Amleth, his young son (Oscar Novak), and his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth’s initiation ritual into manhood follows under the guidance of Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), further establishing a pattern of identification between Viking warriors and their animal avatars that threads its way throughout the film. The initiation ritual ends abruptly when Amleth’s uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), kills his brother, declares himself king, and makes Gudrún his bride and queen. The boy Amleth barely escapes with his life.
Time passes quickly, and the now grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a buff, ripped Viking berserker armed to (and, in one scene, with!) his teeth mercilessly raiding Slavic villages for the joy of the blood-sport, for treasure, and for slaves who are sent off to such faraway places as Iceland, where Fjölnir has taken up residence as a dethroned king turned farmer. In a narrative ruse that nods to Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and joins the human cargo bound for Iceland to avenge his father’s murder and to rescue his mother. Also aboard the ship is a Slavic seer, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Not unexpectedly, once in Iceland, Amleth is mistreated as a slave. When he saves the life of his stepbrother, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), during a game of knattleikr, an especially brutal and violent lacrosse-like Icelandic Viking sport, Amleth receives slightly better treatment, but with the warning that he “will always be a slave.” After the game, Amleth, with the aid of his now lover Olga, sets in motion his plot to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill his uncle. A middle-of-the night meeting with the local He-Witch (Ingvar Sigurðsson) enlightens Amleth further about his destiny—Olga will bear him twin sons, each a king in his own right—and provides him with a charmed sword (think Viking Excalibur) that can only be unsheathed at night and at the Gates of Hell, a volcanic cave filled with fiery lava. Amleth returns to Fjölnir’s farm, sword in hand, and launches a campaign of physical and psychological warfare against his uncle and his retainers, learning some unsettling truths about his mother in the process, until he and Fjölnir meet naked in a final last battle at the Gates of Hell. Strip out the volcanic component of that battle, and viewers have a cinematic echo of the final battle between Arthur and Mordred at the end of John Boorman’s 1980 film Excalibur.
In a number of interviews, Skarsgård has allowed that he always wanted to make a Viking film. In the HBO series True Blood, he played Eric Northman, a Viking vampire from the Middle Ages. He is the son of noted Swedish actor, Stellen Skarsgård, who was Cerdic, the blood thirsty leader of the invading Danes in the 2004 film King Arthur. The younger Skarsgård also played Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband in the HBO series Big Little Lies. And while Skarsgård makes a convincing berserker and warrior, the outstanding performance in the film is delivered by Kidman. In her confrontation with her now-grown son, she delivers a monologue that is truly Shakespearean. No unwilling or vaguely involved Gertrude is she. Even Lady Macbeth pales in comparison. She instigated Aurvandil’s murder and laughed with delight when Fjölnir carried her off as a more than willing bride. She even happily bore him a son, Gunnar, whom Amleth had earlier selflessly rescued from certain death on the knattleikr playing field.
Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún
Eggers has developed a following among moviegoers because of his two previous films. Both The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) are small period films that evoke the horror, magic, and mystery of seventeenth-century and nineteenth-century New England. Eggers goals for his Viking film are clearly more ambitious; The Northman does not offer viewers another moody glimpse into some out-of-the way corner of New England. Beginning with its runic intertitles, The Northman posits an expansive Viking world that is unapologetically pagan and that stretches across Europe from Russia to Iceland. Christianity is dismissed offhand in a brief conversation between two of Fjölnir’s soldiers as a fringe religion whose God hangs from a tree.
The film’s world is also unsparingly brutal. In the Viking raid, those villagers not dragged off as slaves are hacked to death or are herded into a barn and burned alive, be they men, women or children. Women especially are victims of brutality even when they are allowed to live as slaves, but Gudrún, Olga, a second seer (played by Björk), and a Valkyrja astride a white stallion (Ineta Sliuzaite) do have genuine agency. If Umberto Eco is correct in asserting that we constantly “mess up” the Middle Ages, The Northman does so in a way that has a contemporary echo given the savagery now on display daily in Ukraine at the hands of the country’s so-called Russian liberators. Critical response to the film has, deservingly, been overwhelmingly positive. And, with a script co-written by the Icelandic poet and novelist, Sjón, The Northman is certainly a cut above most Viking films in its attention to detail, both small and large.
The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers from a script co-written by Sjón and Robert Eggers. A Focus Feature/United Artists Production. 137 minutes. 2022. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe.