Friday August 05, 2022
Movie Review: The Northman (2022)
I’ll take “Hamlet.”
Not that I don’t admire what Robert Eggers has done here. Our culture is way too now-focused and future-focused, and if the movies create anything historical it’s usually from the author or auteur’s youth, and tinged with nostalgia, it’s not from, you know, before the Magna Carta. I might have even made this exact comment when reviewing a movie from China. (Which I can't find, of course.) The Chinese have way more legends from pre-1,000 A.D., so they’re that much more likely to make movies from those periods, while Hollywood, nah, it doesn’t give a shit. Well, Eggers does. As does Alexander Skarsgård.
Apparently Skarsgård, the hunky vampire of “True Blood,” as well as our most recent big-movie Tarzan, has wanted to make his Viking movie for a while now. He’s Swedish born-and-bred, son of Stellan, brother to an unending host of Skarsgård siblings, and he wanted to go full Scandinavian. Good for him. (BTW: Did he ever try out for “Thor”? Just checked: he did. And Marvel went Australia instead. How rude.)
Apparently Eggers was also interested in making a true-life Viking movie. But whose story? Erik the Red? Fran Tarkenton? They wound up going with the tale of Amleth.
Yes, it’s the tale that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” So instead of an action hero, they went with the West’s most famous inaction hero.
Slings and arrows
Is “Hamlet” also one of our most famous revenge stories? I don’t think of it that way, but I guess that’s what it is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Hamlet serves it up not just cold but dumped in the trash in the back alley.
Amleth is also big on the delaying tactic, but there are big differences between the stories. Amleth is a child when his father is murdered (not a young adult), he witnesses his uncle Fjölnir doing it (as opposed to second-hand info from his father’s ghost), he sees his mother being carried away to be ravaged (Hamlet just imagines that one), and Amleth goes into exile (no similar exile for Hamlet). This is what young Amleth says, over and over, as he rows away:
I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.
It’s his Inigo Montoya line.
The next time we see him he’s Skarsgardian strong, dirty and brooding with a massive back, and attacking and pillaging with a berserker tribe of Vikings. When he hears that some of their latest victims, Slavs, are being sent as tribute to the now-deposed King Fjölnir, living in his own exile in Iceland with Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their children, he doesn’t think, “Well, I guess Harald of Norway did my work for me. Guess I can get on with my life.” The revenge is his life. So he sneaks aboard the boat to be part of the tribute. Only Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) notices. Will she give him away? Will they get together?
Yes. It's a serious, indie movie that goes for verisimilitude as much as possible, and with deep historical research into the period involved. But some tropes die hard, such as, “Hey, the two best-looking actors are going to shack up. How nice for them.” Eggers also includes mysticism and witchcraft as an almost daily part of life. Because we’re getting the POV of the people involved and they believe that it’s happening? Or maybe Eggers himself believes in that shit? Who knows? The asides to the mystical took away from the story for me, to be honest. What’s Willem Dafoe’s head doing here? Is that sword his dead father’s or just a sword?
In Iceland, Fjölnir’s eldest son, Thorir (Gustav Lindh), dismisses the new group of slaves as unworthy. He somehow misses the tall, hulking man among them until Amleth all but roars. Thus begins his rise. A game of knattleikr is played against another farm, the point of which seems to be to throw a ball and hit an opposing post, but the point quickly becomes survival as players maim or kill one another. In the end, it’s just Amleth and Thorfinnr, played by Hafpor Julius Bjornsson, the Icelandic strongman champion who played “The Mountain” on “Game of Thrones.” Which is when Fjölnir’s youngest son Gunnar (Elliott Rose) joins the action, stealing the ball, and is about to be killed by Thorfinnr. Amleth saves him and kills the Mountain.
Yes, Amleth is doing the opposite of what he promised to do. He’s actually saving Fjölnir’s kids. But such saving means rising further and getting closer to his target. Is that part of the plan or mere happenstance? Privileges are given, including Olga, and there’s more nighttime mysticism.
At some point Amleth kills some of Fjölnir’s men and nails them to a wall. To what end? Then he reveals himself to his mother to a not-good end. Turns out his beloved mother was originally chattel for his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke); she was the spoils of war, and Amleth was the result of a rape. She was actually part of the coup. As a child, when he saw Fjölnir carrying her away? She wasn’t screaming, she was laughing. I’m like, “Wait, did she know Fjölnir wanted to kill Amleth?” She did. She didn’t care. She was good with it.
You’d think at this point Amleth would kill her, too, but, sure, I guess it’s tough to switch gears like that. But it means he’s lost his advantage—his identity has been revealed. So he splits. Then when Fjölnir is about to kill Olga, he shows up on a hillside with Thorir’s heart in a sack, offering a swap: her life for the boy’s heart. Fjölnir takes the deal and then tortures Amleth. Somehow, by raven, Valkyrie or Olga, he escapes; and even though Olga is pregnant with his children (twins), and they’re on a boat away from Iceland, he can’t leave his oath undone. He swims back to shore.
He still doesn’t act much. In the village, his mother attacks him so he kills her (through the heart—she thanks him, a good bit); then Gunnar attacks him so he kills him, too. Then he and Fjölnir meet at the Gates of Hel, which I took to mean more mysticism, but apparently it’s Hekla, a volcanic mountain in Iceland. And in the heat and the dark, nude or near-nude, they battle, and Fjölnir is beheaded after mortally wounding Amleth. And there’s no Fortinbras or Horatio to offer benedictions.
I got bored. Sorry. The story never quite catches, and Amleth’s inaction is never interesting, or resonant, or poetic.
What’s inside him? Hamlet spilled his guts constantly, and poetically, while Amleth keeps spilling guts literally, and it’s usually the wrong guts. I recently rewatched Michael Mann’s “Thief” and a cool thing in the final siege is that our hero kills the head bad guy first, then fights subordinates on the way out. The trope is usually the opposite—building to the big confrontation—which is what Eggers does. For all of his 9th-century verisimilitude, it’s another Hollywood trope he buys into.