The Northman (2022) The Northman (2022) ***½

     Between last year’s The Green Knight and The Northman this spring, I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’re at the beginning of a little mini-boom in strange, polyphonic adventure movies set in a fantastical version of the Dark Ages. I sure hope so, although that’s such a narrow and inaccessible plot of cinematic terrain that we were probably lucky to get even those two films to sprout from it. After all, movies like that have never really appeared before in quantity; hitherto only Excalibur ticked all the same boxes of tone and mood and subject matter. The Northman, however, is the odd picture out even in its tiny class, because it forsakes Arthuriana in favor of Norse historical legendry. Specifically, it draws from book three of Saxo Grammaticus’s Deeds of the Danes, the same text that inspired both William Shakespeare’s Hamlet four centuries later and the anonymous Icelandic Ambale’s Saga another hundred years after that. Don’t go into The Northman expecting brooding sad boys paralyzed into inaction by inner turmoil, though. This Hamlet is a Viking through and through, with an altogether more outer-directed understanding of what it means to take up arms against a sea of troubles.

     Aurvandil Warraven, King of the Jutes (Ethan Hawk, from Gattaca and Sinister), has returned from a long sojourn abroad pillaging Norway. Only his pre-teen son, Amleth (Oscar Novak) seems very happy to see him. It’s possible that some of the tension visible between Aurvandil and his wife, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, of The Invasion and The Others), is merely the brittle formality of the royal court, but from the way king and queen behave even when they’re alone together, it seems clear that something else is going on. Maybe it’s because Aurvandil almost got himself killed on this latest marauding excursion, coming home with a wound that might do him in even yet. Or maybe it’s a long-simmering parenting dispute, since the first thing His Majesty does once the obligatory feting of his victories and distribution of the spoils thereof is complete is to take Amleth to see Heimir the jester-shaman (Willem Dafoe, from Death Note and John Carter) to partake of some weird subterranean ritual in which father and son get high, act like dogs, and hallucinate visions of the Tree of Kings. Or considering how Aurvandil blows off Gudrún’s efforts to lure him into bed in order to do all that, it could be just the age-old discontent to which all spouses of the singlemindedly ambitious are subject. Maybe it’s something else altogether, which we don’t know enough even to guess at yet. But whatever might be eating Gudrún, it’s plainly nothing compared to the cares of Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir is positively dour throughout the whole of the king’s homecoming celebration, barely speaking to anyone except to pick fights which his brother must then smooth over. In the end, though, Fjölnir is much easier to read than his sister-in-law. The reason why he’s so grumpy now that Aurvandil is back from Norway is because it means that he’s going to have to seize the throne of Jutland the hard way, instead of relying on the vagaries of war overseas to eliminate the man currently sitting on it. If only that weejie bastard who stuck the king had aimed his sword-stroke another inch to the left…

     Fjölnir doesn’t waste a lot of time in making his move. He waylays his brother and nephew with a posse of goons a day or two later, while the two of them are away from the royal hall. Ironically, the king has just finished telling Amleth all about the manly duty of vengeance when the first volley of arrows transfixes him. Aurvandil Warraven dies fighting, just like he always wanted, but Fjölnir’s seat on the throne isn’t quite secure yet. Child though he is, Amleth grasps at once that his uncle will now have to kill him, too, and that kid doesn’t make things easy for the warrior (Eldar Skar) charged with his assassination. In fact, Amleth causes the poor bastard so many problems that he will henceforth be known as Finnr the Noseless. That no doubt goes some way toward explaining why Finnr doesn’t press the attack after taking that knife to the face, but falsely tells Fjölnir that the boy is dead per instructions. The last thing Amleth sees before making good his escape is his uncle literally carrying his mother away, slung over his beefy shoulder like a sack of rye. The deposed prince rows off into the Baltic in a dinghy he’s just barely strong enough to control, chanting “I will avenge you, father; I will save you, mother; I will kill you, Fjölnir” all the way.

     Fifteen or twenty years later, Amleth (now grown up into Alexander Skarsgård, from Battleship and Hidden) still chants that to keep time while rowing, although nowadays his oar is usually just one of the thirty or so propelling a Viking dragonship on missions of plunder along the coasts and riverbanks of northernmost Europe. Nor is the adult Amleth merely a Viking. He belongs to the elite squad of Úlfhéðnar who comprise the vanguard shock troops of his raiding crew; think berserkers, but with wolf-spirits possessing them instead of bear-spirits. When we catch up with the erstwhile prince of Jutland, he and his fellows are rowing up the Neva River, attacking the villages of the Rus whom their descendants will settle down to rule someday. Those poor and backward farmers don’t have much that’s worth taking, so the main prize on these raids is the people themselves, to sell as slaves in Iceland, where the farmland is good, but demands far more labor than the few colonists settled there can manage on their own. After the battle’s end, Amleth has a strange encounter with an even stranger woman who might actually be one of the Norns (ex-Sugarcubes frontwoman Björk, whose previous foray into film acting, The Juniper Tree, also involved pagan Scandinavian magic), prophesying that he will soon have an opportunity to fulfill his long-ago vows. Then, the following morning, he happens to overhear something interesting while the captives are being sorted and inventoried: the buyer for this lot is a fellow called Fjölnir the Brotherless, said to have once seized the throne of Jutland by fratricide, only to lose it in turn when that territory was conquered by King Harald of Norway. Evidently the usurped usurper escaped with his dead brother’s former wife to Iceland, where he herds sheep in comfortable but much reduced circumstances. Recognizing the hand of Fate when he sees it, Amleth brands himself with the mark of a slave, and infiltrates the human cargo bound for Iceland.

     As you might imagine, a slave with the strength, stamina, and endurance of a werewolf is a valuable commodity indeed, and Amleth— or Björn, as he calls himself within the household of his enemies— quickly earns distinction among his fellows equaled only by the gorgeous and magically adept Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy, from The Witch and Split). He even gets promoted to foreman after he saves the life of Fjölnir’s younger son, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), when the boy rashly intervenes in a violent, vaguely football-like game in which killing members of the opposing team falls within the compass of permissible plays. Amleth is further rewarded with Olga herself, who has by then proven to be far less pliant than Fjölnir imagined, but far too talented to be wasted with the kind of severe discipline that an uncooperative slave might ordinarily expect. Maybe Fjölnir figures it’ll be punishment enough for the “haughty” girl to be given as a trophy to a fellow slave, but if so, he hasn’t been paying attention to the way Olga and Amleth have been looking at each other ever since they boarded the ship for Iceland. In any event, Olga’s idea of basking in the afterglow includes working a spell to create the conditions necessary for the two lovers secure their respective hearts’ desires. For Amleth’s part, taking advantage of Olga’s conjuring will require keeping his eyes peeled for foxes the next time he sneaks out of the slave barracks at night.

     Sure enough, the next fox Amleth sees leads him to a cave in the surrounding hills, where a warlock (Ingmar Sigurðsson, of Beowulf & Grendel and Metalhead) who evidently has his own bone to pick with Fjölnir tells him how to find a weapon powerful enough to even the odds between the slave prince and the ex-warlord. In an ancient tomb hidden elsewhere in the same hills lies a sword called DraugrVampire— because it comes out to drink blood only at night. Between cock-crow and nightfall, it can’t even be drawn from its scabbard, but during the hours of darkness, no armor or shield can withstand the bite of Draugr’s blade. Mind you, the dead king with whom the sword was buried isn’t just going to give it away, but surely no man deserves to wield a sword named for the undead unless he can beat the real thing in single combat.

     Magic sword or no, though, Amleth isn’t content merely to slay his uncle and be done with it— not after all these years. Instead, he begins by softening Fjölnir up, emerging from the barracks each night to butcher another few of his men. Soon Fjölnir’s retinue is spreading rumors left and right of an evil spirit, to the point that the priestess serving the homestead (Olwen Fouéré, from Zone 414 and Space Truckers) feels compelled to perform a human sacrifice in the hope of propitiating their supposed otherworldly persecutor. The nightly slaughter obviously puts Amleth well along the road to “I will avenge you, father,” while simultaneously making “I will kill you, Fjölnir” easier to accomplish, both by unnerving the primary target and by depriving him of the services of those who would fight by his side. “I will save you, mother” will be a much tougher nut to crack, however, for reasons that might occur to the self-appointed avenger if he sat down for a minute and really thought the situation through. Surely King Harald’s conquest of Jutland must have presented Gudrún with plenty of opportunities to escape from Fjölnir if that were what she actually wanted. Her presence here in Iceland therefore suggests that her “captivity” is not the unending torment that Amleth has chosen to believe, and that her “rescue” will be less welcome than he has always imagined.

     Notwithstanding Amleth’s misreading of his mother and the fallout therefrom, The Northman tells a familiar enough story that it might not have merited much attention had writer/director Roger Eggers and his surnameless co-writer, Sjón, taken a conventional Hollywood adventure approach to the material. Fortunately that’s not at all what they did. Instead, they and everyone else involved in The Northman’s production went all-out to create a believably seamless Dark Ages Norse milieu, even if any effort to pin down the setting more concretely than that will inevitably be defeated by a hundred anachronisms of varying size. (For instance, if the colonization of Iceland is underway, then the Varangians should already be ruling in Novgorod, putting a stop to the kind of raiding whereby Amleth and his crew make their living.) The shooting locations, the props and costumes, the sets for both indoor and outdoor living spaces— all were thoroughly researched and chosen with at least one eye toward a species of broad-strokes authenticity. Even the anachronisms often have a logic that slots them neatly into the overall scheme. Take, for example, Draugr’s markedly triangular, sharply tapered blade. That style of sword is much older than the more parallel-edged weapons wielded by Fjölnir and his men, so although both styles actually post-date the Viking era by some centuries, the difference between them is in keeping with the notion that Draugr has been reposing in a royal tomb since who-knows-when.

     More importantly, though, The Northman creates a convincing simulation of pagan Norse culture and values, acknowledging how they differ from ours, but refraining from editorializing on them in any overt way. Its characters all accept as a matter of course that Valhalla is the most desirable afterlife, even though— and indeed because— the only way into it is to die in battle. They accept that revenge is a duty, that Fate is both real and inescapable, and that might makes at least a first-order approximation of right. They live in a world of rigidly defined gender roles that don’t map neatly at all onto those that the Christian West carried over from the Roman Empire. (For an especially striking illustration of this point, notice that the magician who tells Amleth how to find Draugr is dressed in women’s clothing. That’s because the Norse considered divination and communion with the spirit world to be women’s work. Male witches were by no means unheard of, but there was a taboo of some strength against them, and a certain amount of gender-nonconformity was inherent in the very concept. Even Oðinn occasionally caught shit from the other gods for practicing seiðr like a great, big fag.) Most of all, they do what they must to survive, whether by skill, by guile, by networks of mutual obligation, or by sheer physical toughness and the strength of their sword-arms. Sjón and Eggers show us a carefully considered and internally consistent vision of how the Norse of the Dark Ages might have worked, played, fought, loved, worshipped, celebrated their successes, mourned their dead, and mitigated their defeats, and although I’m sure a real expert on the subject would find plenty to quibble with, they get more than enough of it right to convince an educated layman. What’s more, they proceed as if they don’t care that modern audiences have largely forgotten how to distinguish between depiction and endorsement, and just let these barbarians be what they are. If you want to valorize the Vikings as noble savages, The Northman won’t try to stop you. But if you want to be all “Men will literally sword-fight naked on the rim of an active volcano rather than go to therapy” instead, that’s an equally defensible reading of the film.

     Speaking of things which the present day has largely forgotten, I was also pleased to see how Eggers and company handle magic and the supernatural here. This film finds a rewarding middle path between the openly fantastical and the 21st-century fashion for seeking the “real story” behind ancient legends— and here again, Sjón and Eggers have done their homework. The Northman treats supernatural phenomena as genuine within the characters’ frame of reference, but gives them always a subjectivity that makes it possible to question how real they are within ours. Furthermore, that depiction is always rooted in how magic was understood to work by the actual pagan Norse, to the extent that such things are knowable a thousand-odd years later. Nobody in The Northman summons demons or turns invisible or casts Magic Missile. Instead they have divine visitations and ambiguous visions of the future, often under the influence of psychoactive drugs; they read portents in, and take mystical direction from, the behavior of animals; they draw no distinction between enchantment and any sufficiently advanced example of the swordsmith’s art. Even Amleth’s fight with the draugr is presented as something that, while obviously real for him, might not necessarily have been real for any outside observer, and plays out according to authentic Scandinavian traditions for defeating the undead. Paradoxically, then, The Northman’s fantastical elements reinforce the reality of its world by intensifying the culture shock that the viewer experiences upon visiting it.



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