A Hamlet reimagining is either possible or not. According to Robert Eggers’s new period epic The Northman, Shakespeare was first inspired by a legend from the 12th century. Does anybody remember this one before? An exiled Scandanavian prince plots revenge for the murder of his father by an unscrupulous uncle while he is in exile. There is going to be a lot of bloodsheds.
For the first time since its release in 1993, Last Action Hero parodied the idea of Hamlet as an action-packed blockbuster. Rather than being satire, Eggers’ Vikingsploitation is a serious attempt at the genre. Arnold Schwarzenegger also makes an appearance: Conan is married to Hamlet in The Northman, with all its bloody pulp and bulging abs and hallucinatory grandeur that implies. Instead of a man speaking somberly to a skull in a cemetery, we hear the crucial words of a severed head. We had a soft spot in our hearts for Willem Dafoe.
Decapitated cameo by Dafoe is one of the most memorable moments in The Northman. Isolation, masculinity, and madness in the form of a phantasmagorical maritime legend were all explored in Eggers’s previous novel, The Lighthouse, which was written in the style of a slow-burning thriller (with Dafoe basically playing the Sea Captain from The Simpsons).
As a 38-year-old filmmaker who began his career with the rich Puritan symbolism and expertly engineered shocks of The Witch—a Nathaniel Hawthorn-style folktale examining dogmatic Christian misogyny and the symbiotic relationship between good and evil—Eggers continues to weave and stretch the fabric of genre cinema around his ideas like a pro.
There’s no doubt that The Northman’s nearly $90 million price tag indicates that the filmmaker is currently in style. On one level, it’s a matter of business: the commercial prospects of blockbuster entertainment not derived from expensive intellectual property are on the line with its release (unless you consider the Shakespeare Extended Universe to be a rival to Marvel).
In addition, the film serves as an artistic reckoning for both the director and the audience. Considering that any filmmaker with a distinctive style is being hailed as a visionary, it’s worth wondering if Eggers just has good taste in secondhand imagery from the Criterion Collection’s Kubrick and Tarkovsky sections. Furthermore, is The Northman just the emperor’s new clothes—the pricey, brand-conscious work of an incompetent artist who has been exposed by his own narcissistic arrogance?
Think about it: Ethan Hawke used the H-word as an expert witness in a recent New Yorker profile of Eggers, the director of The Northman. As Hawke put it, “I’ve spent my life wondering, ‘Will I ever get to be on a set like Apocalypse Now?'” Hawke meant it as a compliment There’s a good chance that someone is trying.
They have the balls, and the hubris and the arrogance to say, ‘I want to make a masterpiece.’” The Northman’s early scenes, which focus on Hawke’s weary, battle-scarred monarch Aurvandil War-Raven, show an unapologetic yearning for greatness—and for tableaus imbued with some vast, Coppola-sized scale.
After a successful campaign abroad, Hawke returns to his castle to lead a military procession that allows Eggers to indulge in the kind of dexterous, extended shots that get directors crowned as kings—world-building as a form of showing off.
In period epics, showmanship and scholarship are often intertwined, and Eggers is a stickler for detail. With The Northman, filmmaker David Lowery is attempting to apply modern technology to old-school material, just like he did with The Green Knight.
In comparison to The Green Knight’s balladry, The Northman sounds more like a black metal B-side. When it comes to Eggers’ work, nothing is more important to him than maintaining the authenticity of the dialects used in his stories, The Witch and The Lighthouse being two prime examples. The Northman, which was co-written by the Icelandic poet Sjon, has its share of subtitled passages, but not as many as its producers might have hoped.
This time, the characters’ voices sound like they were recorded in a Nordic dialect. Perhaps one day, Eggers hopes, he will be able to self-finance his own historical epics like Mel Gibson, but only in English. “I believe I made the best decision given the circumstances… ” “I’d like to think so.”
When reviewing Conan the Barbarian in 1982, Roger Ebert expressed concern about the film because of its fascist/white supremacist undertones. Invoking Mel Gibson is a little risky given that The Northman could be seen as an homage to Ubermenschian ideals.
As Conan sliced off the top of James Earl Jones’s head and threw it down the stairs, “I found myself thinking that Leni Riefenstahl could have directed it and that Goebbels might have praised it,” he wrote. The Northman doesn’t appear to be a particularly political film, despite the fact that Eggers has previously expressed his disdain for the co-optation of Nordic iconography by various right-wing movements. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that vengeance is best served cold, according to an old Klingon proverb.
Hawke is the perfect choice for a role in a film with a lot of ice in its veins. When it comes to his performance, he channels some of Richard Linklater’s tender and paternal charisma. It’s a sweet moment when, upon meeting his 11-year-old son, Amleth (Oscar Novak), Auvandil pretends to be harsh before embracing him in an enormous, grunting bear hug.
The bonding between father and son doesn’t end there. Two scenes later, the two engage in the Viking version of a catch: they descend into a cave, pretend to be wolves, and ritualistically trip balls in front of a burning wall of fire.
As if he were walking a tightrope between ridiculousness and sublimeness, Eggers appears to be testing his audience, his abilities, or some combination of both in these passages. The Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monty Python and the Holy The Witch’s self-fulfilling parable about a teenager who is so terrified by her family’s piety that she chooses to live deliciously instead had certain winking humor lurking in the margins.
Slapstick in The Lighthouse went even further, peaking when Robert Pattinson’s Thomas Howard grabbed one of the ominous, Hitchcockian birds that were tormenting his daily toil and splattered it against a wall like an egg carton. In The Northman, Eggers’ vision quests are ridiculous, but it’s hard to fault him because, as Hawke puts it, “the guy is trying.” Fjolnir (Claes Bang) quickly puts a hit out on Amleth, but the boy manages to get away by rowboat. The visuals help to mask the predictable nature of the setup, which sees Aurvandil betrayed and ambushed by his younger brother, Fjolnir.
Alexander Skarsgard’s beast mode physicality is better utilized in this film than it was in Tarzan when we next see our hero he’s aged and grown into an absolutely ripped Alexander Skarsgard. Amleth, played by Skarsgard, is more than just a cartoon character: A swirl of flesh and blood CGI is how one might describe him now that he has taken up residence with the berserker clan and serves as their spearhead.
Re-introductions by Eggers are meant to shock us with the character’s transformation, but we also get a sense of how strategically he’s holding back. Even though Amleth is more than capable of mauling and pillaging, he refuses to kill women and children.
Considering the film’s moral compass and its concern for mainstream audiences, this reticence has to do with the filmmaker’s moral compass more than it does with any plausible psychology. Startling and daring would be an adaptation of The Northman with a protagonist who is genuinely ethically ambiguous.
At least Skarsgard’s feral intensity has largely been subdued by Amleth, who continues to remind us of his fundamental decency. Using one to justify the other diminishes The Northman’s wild, violent ambition. As gruesome as Eggers’ book is, there’s a sense that the author doesn’t want to go over the top.
Another, the more serious flaw is that, after gaining some momentum, the film abruptly slows down in the middle. Even though Fjolnir, who has since downsized his empire, continues to treat himself (and his son Amleth and his mother as royalty), Amleth heads to a rural village that Fjolnir still rules over.
Once he arrives at his destination, Amleth settles in with another defiant slave named Olga and forms a confessional bond with her, the creepy Scandanavian Seeress (Björk, perfectly cast) tells him that vengeance is his destiny (Anya Taylor-Joy). A series of gory, Animal House-style pranks are devised against Fjolnir’s goons to scare them into submission.
That Amleth wants to torture and test his uncle’s faith before cutting him in half with a sacred sword is pretty funny, and in a perverse way, so is his mother, Queen Gudrn—a supposed damsel in distress. It’s a role Nicole Kidman plays that at first glance appears to be a waste of time, but it actually provides her with some of the best material she’s had in years: a big scene with Skarsgard, a Big Little Lies reunion and a lightning rod for controversy.
In contrast, despite the chiseled, exposed flesh between Amleth and Olga, the romantic scenes are strangely dry. Taylor-performance Joy’s is too subdued, save for one daringly full-frontal, R-rated moment of physical comedy. There isn’t enough of the actress’s spooked, uncanny quality in a role that attempts to thread feminist defiance through Eggers’s alpha-male machismo.
In the end, Olga’s role as a conduit for her lover’s royal bloodline makes it difficult to reconcile her role as a progressive subversive. While Ridley Scott’s eloquent critique of The Last Duel looks like an actual movie of ideas, Amleth’s triumphant connection to his bloodlust is all we’re meant to feel in the final stretch.
The Last Duel and The Green Knight were also powerful. A lot of things describe The Northman: brutal, rousing, and occasionally amusing. Amleth contemplates Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” quandary at one point, having to decide between vengeance and being a good husband and father.
Ultimately, he decides he can have it both ways. It’s not a case of genuine ambivalence, but rather a carefully staged attempt to win over the audience. Moreover, despite the film’s many declarations of love, The Northman doesn’t have a lot of heart. When Björk’s Seeress tells Amleth to “remember for whom your last tear was shed,” it only serves to highlight Eggers’ palette when it isn’t drenched in blood.
Without meaning, the story’s central metaphor of cutting out and discarding someone’s heart serves as an unintentional allegory for the film’s overall impression of reverence and brutality. However, Eggers deserves credit because he made The Northman entirely on his own terms, which means he is also entirely responsible for its flaws.
Irving is the Chief Editor at the Landscape Insight. He lives just outside of New York. His writings have also been featured in some very famous magazines. When he isn’t reading the source material for a piece or decompressing with a comfort horror movie, Irving is usually somewhere in his car. You can reach Irving at – firstname.lastname@example.org or on Our website Contact Us Page.