There’s another film that famously ends with a sword fight surrounded by lava. That epic battle, between one Anakin Skywalker and a certain Obi Wan Kenobi, ended when the latter got the higher ground but no one has the higher ground in this film, not at any point.
This is one of the best aspects of director Robert Eggers’ new Viking movie; there are no heroes and villains, just people motivated by love, greed or hatred to attack and kill until they achieve their own twisted view of justice. It looks like a standard revenge story at the start as a young prince flees his homeland following his uncles’ murder of his father, only to return in adulthood to right this wrong and save his mother. If this sounds like The Lion King that is because this is based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Hamlet which in turn begat the famous cartoon film. In this version though, by the time Simba returns to the Pride lands he has become a rampaging death machine who ticks all the classic Viking boxes; he certainly pillages and while he is not involved in any raping himself he certainly seems to advocate it. No one is living the Hakuna Matata mantra here for sure. Nonetheless, it is good to see a film that is not restrained by traditional notions of good and evil. Even the mother figure isn’t drawn how she was under the Disney model. You’ll recall that Shakespeare’s Gertrude was no innocent either but compared to Nicole Kidman in this film she’s Snow White.
This might present a problem in that their is no one here that you can root for though. This and the dispassionate approach to the bleak narrative means it is impossible to get emotionally engaged with this movie. It has been described as this generation’s Gladiator (you may have seen this on the side of some buses) but that is totally inaccurate; this is nothing like Ridley Scott’s film which had at its heart a huge amount of heart. The Northman’s key emotion is rage and many audience members will find this keeps them at a distance.
For me, the running time becomes a factor in this too. Eggers’ debut film The Witch had a similarly dour and oppressive tone but I thought it was superb. The Witch was a sharp ninety minutes but The Northman ploughs on for another hour on top of this and it is hard to sustain the mood for that long. Watching it is a pretty exhausting experience.
With all of this I still have to applaud The Northman for its commitment to the folklore and all that this brings, from the high fantasy to the low characterisation. More than Gladiator I would compare this to last year’s The Green Knight as, in addition to adapting an ancient legend, both have the same kind of pacing and an identical focus on fate and duty. Again though, The Green Knight had the advantage of a protagonist you could like and get behind. Some will argue with me on the slight characterisation as Alexander Skarsgärd’s Amleth does go through an emotional journey but his and the story’s drive toward brutality eclipse this to the point of obliteration. Anya Taylor-Joy, as the white witch Olga of the Birch Forest, is the person who inspires different emotions in Amleth but even she never quite escapes the limited personality you’d expect of a character called Olga of the Birch Forest. Ethan Hawke brings a rare humanity to the felled king but once he is gone and the plot starts in earnest, only the aforementioned Nicole Kidman gets a moment that approaches anything outside of the admittedly intense but quite one note performances. Willem Defoe and Björk both appear too but believe me, neither of them are stepping away from their reputations for being a bit kooky. Again, all of this is deliberate so I am not criticising the film for it, but it can be a barrier.
There is a certain amount of Viking imagery in the movie too and this is hard to pull off. When the Valkyries turned up in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame it worked because the whole damn thing was about costumed heroes and outlandish fantasy figures but they are harder to depict with the kind of earnestness Eggers is going for here. At least there is no danger of the Vikings being romanticised here which is appropriate given their historical reputation, and their right wing misappropriation.
There is no denying that The Northman is an astonishing film. The direction is unflinching and bold, the cinematography is stunning and the story is both unexpected and compelling. (The whole coming back to reclaim his kingdom aspect is wrapped up quickly and in a quite surprising way. Let’s just say that key family members have already bought the farm by the time he get there). It’s just relentless and uncompromising though, with all the good and bad aspects that brings.
The Ripley Factor:
There is violence against women in this movie, there is nudity and there are stereotypes. On the one hand you could argue this is inevitable with a source text that is approximately seven hundred years old but again, I direct you toward The Green Knight which managed to empower the female characters without betraying the excepted historical setting. Taylor-Joy and Kidman both play women with drive, power and agency but they remain chauvinistic tropes to some considerable extent.
I’m fact there is compelling evidence to suggest that many Viking warriors were women (see here) but this movie only confirms the stereotypes. In as much it is both not a part of the solution and very much a part of the problem.