It was a valid choice that the Northman should have such an otherworldly quality. Otherwise, we could not really conceive of the world of the Vikings. Most of the action is set in 914 AD; as such, the film portrays paganism in its purest and most virile form. It is in this world where we accept supernatural events as real, before the dictates of reason ruled; when fate was ordained and witches could tell you about it.
It is tempting to say the violence in the Northman is gratuitous, but that would be to overlook the violence which was endemic in Viking culture. Even the women exalted in this violence: Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrun eggs her husband on in his wish to enter Valhalla through death in combat, far from being a peacekeeper. To modern eyes this seems nihilistic and anarchic. Yet the film is brutal in portraying an accurate vision of Viking society.
It only seems strange to our eyes. Director Robert Eggers’ refuses to make the narrative conform to our own sensibilities. This results in a discordant note between the film and the audience, which is palpable and unsettling. From the sparse theater audience, it felt as though we were confronted with a creature from a different world, one that was extinct and we did not quite know what to do with.
The film strikes a cord with something deep inside, though, because it connects us to a branch of European history which has been lost without much of a trace in terms of a historical record. And so while the film is alien and discomfiting, we know that this is us too in a sense, a branch of Western civilization which was eventually absorbed by Christian culture.
Amleth, played by Alexander Skarsgard, is an explosion of masculinity bursting from the screen. His guttural growl is what guys at the gym are merely performing a weak echo of in terms of what it means to be a man; ready to raid, kill, and more (though Skarsgard has clearly spent a lot of time in the gym too). As a berserker, he participates with his fellow Vikings in raiding the Rus. I left the theater inspired and wanting to channel my own berserker rage, but alas with little to vent it on in our modern world.
Themes of the Northman are honor and self-sacrifice, fraternal fealty and betrayal. King Aurvandil, played by Ethan Hawke, is Amleth’s father. He is killed by his brother, Fjolnir. Now Queen Gudrun has been (apparently) abducted by the late king’s brother and assassin, to be made his wife. Fjolnir believes that Amleth has been killed by one of his henchmen, but in fact Amleth has escaped by boat, swearing revenge on his uncle. For this Amleth swears vengeance for his father; he will kill his uncle Fjolnir. Amleth repeats the mantra, “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”
It’s rather like Hamlet. And if one leaves the theater pondering whether the film is an homage to Hamlet; it is actually the other way around. Shakespeare was influenced by the story of Amleth, a historical Viking warrior about whom histories were written. Indeed, Amleth shares Hamlet’s righteous indignation, his indecision, and his morbid fate; or better to say, Hamlet shares this with Amleth.
The goal of the Northman, despite its psychedelic production, is verisimilitude; or at least it is fun to believe what we are viewing is just as the Vikings were. One wonders whether it is a feat of imagination or research, when after all much of Viking culture is lost to history. But this is not a normal film, with a regular narrative set in Viking era Scandinavia. It is something more experimental and something more ambitious.
The society is outside of Christianity–not to say pre-Christian. In the 10th century the Vikings viewed Christianity as a rival and pernicious religion. “You must choose between kindness for your kin, and hatred for your enemies,” says the witch doctor to Amleth. The Vikings most fervent wish is to die in battle so as to be allowed into Valhalla. Even their womenfolk encourage them in this ambition. In her urging on the king to daring deeds, Queen Gurdon evoked another Shakespearean character, Lady Macbeth. There is certainly a darkness that Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrun puts to stunning effect.
Yet the pagan Vikings are outside of any Abrhamic religion and the Northman portrays how this constitutes a vastly different morality, one based on valor in battle, which assisted the Vikings in conquering other peoples and lands. In the Northman, we witness a particularly devastating raid on the Rus, inhabitants of present day Russian, after which some of the prisoners are sent to Kiev, and some to Iceland, at which point Amleth disguises himself as a slave to seek vengeance on his uncle. Iceland is considered a drab outpost of the Viking empire; not to be confused with Greenland which was even worse. The slaves consider escape to be hopeless because where would they even go in this God forsaken land (or should I say Gods forsaken)?
It is just this pagan honor culture which motivates Amleth to become a slave and sacrifice his own life to fulfill his oath and avenge his father’s assasination. He had explicitly promised his father he would avenge his death, were his father to fall by “the enemy’s sword.”
It was the best performance to date from Ethan Hawke, and a definite departure from his usual inward, brooding persona. Hawke utterly transforms into a Viking king, King Aurvandil.
As opposed to the Netflix Vikings treatment, which took some liberties in their casting, the Northman portrays 10th century Scandinavia in its scandalous lack of diversity. The film is not particularly political, unless portraying a period of European history and European peoples accurately is now right wing. Why should it be? But maybe it is, maybe that’s just where we are right now.