The Northman is as good as it gets. Is it sufficient ?
There’s a lot to admire The man from the northan ambitious, auteur action film based on the Scandinavian legend that also inspired William Shakespeare Hamlet. It has a plethora of stunning action sequences. There is exactly one great monologue. There is intriguing light and camera work. He’s got blood and guts and Willem Dafoe as the court jester-shaman-northern-shrunkenhead. Watching it, you will have fun. Your attention will be retained; your thirst for on-screen violence will be quenched. In Internet jargon, it “rips”; it’s “going hard”. In the words of novelist Muriel Spark, “For those who love this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they love.”
The story’s features are broad and familiar: as a child, Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) watches his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murder his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), and abduct his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). Decades later, Amleth plods along as a Viking berserker raiding Slavic villages until a seer (Björk, delightfully) reminds him of his fatal vow: kill Fjolnir and avenge his father. He immediately disguises himself as a slave and hides in Iceland where, with the help of an enslaved Slavic girl who might be a witch (Anya Taylor-Joy), he begins to seek revenge.
You get the feeling that director Robert Eggers, who has repeatedly emphasized how much research he did into Viking culture to co-write the screenplay, may have stuck to the conventions of mythos a little too much. In the world of film, fate rules everything, emotions spin on a convenient pin, and dying gloriously in battle is a happy ending. It sounds simplistic: Eggers does not take us beneath the surface of the world he built, as he did in his treatments of puritanical New England in The witch (2015), and it doesn’t get bizarre enough to be truly shocking, as in Lighthouse (2019). A fate-guided story can be deeply psychologically complex – it’s the source material for Hamlet after all, but The man from the north, for the most part, is not. The mythical Prince Amleth was a trickster, Shakespeare was a prevaricator, but Amleth as played by Skarsgard is a laconic warrior, tough in ab and long in swordsmanship but short on anything approaching self-doubt.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t great moments. Some of the battle sequences, like when Amleth battles the corpse of a Mound King for control of a mythic blade, are spellbinding. Kidman is remarkable in his royal role. And the film’s emphasis on smallness realms the characters fight for is a welcome change from historical dramas that use massive scale to try to conjure up false stakes. But ultimately, the thin character work makes it hard to really care about anything onscreen. Sure, I was on the edge of my seat, but that only made it easier to get up and go.
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