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'The Northman' is a genre killer


I wasn’t going to watch Robert Eggers latest film. Like many, I’d grown tired of the waves of Viking themed tv shows & films that had become predictable, careless of history and rather tacky. Then I started to see reviews from people who’s opinion I respected (and whom are perhaps less cynical than I!) and I thought for the expense of a comfy seat & an array of loud & crunchy snacks in a thankfully empty cinema I would give it a shot. For once, I’m glad I did!

‘The Northman’ is savage in its simplicity, yet is the first thing to spark my interest in the genre theatrically since the nearly decade-old first season of Vikings set the bar for modern times.

Egger struck the perfect balance of outrageous fantasy in just the right places whilst also paying accurate homage to the period in which it was set. Yes it has moments that were predictable to fans of the genre, but Egger did them louder, more outrageously and yet somehow.. more mundanely than any attempt previous.
The creative value of the works holds the viewer in a realistic world, where vivid and gloriously gory violence appear not as flat and generic but as plausible and relatable events. The flights of fancy the director does take are vivid, beautiful, tasteful and always possible for the viewer to see as purely a result of drugs, spiritual visions or death experiences. In juxtaposition to the small scales of Icelandic settlements and skirmishes they are perfectly expressed.

As with the visuals, so too with the characters. When they are one dimensional, it is intentional and even highlighted where characters are held accountable within the dialogue which is both poetic in places and crass in others. There are no clear ‘good guys’ by the standards of modernity but rather the cast accurately portray many of the virtues and vices we read in sagas.

Some have criticised the film as underwhelming on scale, but that’s the brilliance of it. This is a film for people who know what they are looking at; it is entertaining without being a tack fest. The plot didn’t have to involve the protagonist ‘finding’ any countries; capturing entire cities or kingdoms; wrestling with religion or defeating any super villain-like nemesis at the expense of the dignity of history. It is a simple tale of an ill-gotten blood feud, set in the back drop of real historical events in what is certainly the most accurate Viking era tale seen to date.

The story line itself is based on Saxo Grammaticus’ 13th century works on the History of the Danes which features Amleth and much of the films plot. The original story was also the direct inspiration for Shakespear’s Hamlet, which is why so many have noticed that parallel. Once you know this, the fact it feels so much like Hamlet (all be it a blood stained Hamlet on mushrooms) becomes a big green tick on the list of history fans.

Historical accuracy is actually brilliant in the film with several experts, including the likes of Neil Price having been consulted. Here are just a few gems:

  • The film is set in the late 9th & early 10th century during the founding years for Scandinavian Iceland where, true to history, characters in the film have migrated during Harald Fine Hair’s consolidation of Norway. This is true to history with many having fled his control of the country.
  • We’re treated in the second act to a far more frequent and realistic raid East and to a portrayal of a fortified town in modern Ukraine, with captives Slavs being sent to realistic locations such as Constantinople and Kiev. The raid is devoid of legions of ridiculous shield maidens but features a female warrior leader clad brilliantly to match an actual grave find.
  • In a ritual scene our protagonist is revealed as a grown Ulfhednar preparing for a raid, reflecting a realistic insight into Oddinc wolf cults & many of the visuals mirror actual representations such as the Torslunda plates. It’s refreshing to see these groups acknowledged and in land raids as opposed to the generic appearance of ships along British shores.
  • Without a studded leather bondage suit in sight, costume is eloquently lead by Linda Muir in consultation with historians focusing on accurately portraying dress and artefacts across a world of interconnected cultures and even across time when a Vendel era grave mound is entered. For anyone concerned about loss of sex appeal, there is an abundance of battle-bottoms, so have no fear.
  • Props also follow suit in accuracy for the most part, with the lead sword (the only thing in the film that seems to physically follow rules of both the mundane and the sacred) featuring a Vendel era ring and thankfully not an impractical amber pummel!
  • There is no pan-norse fixation with Odin in the film with Freyr being acknowledged as the main god of the settlers. It’s refreshing to see an understanding that Odin was predominantly a cultic deity. The use of Freyr as Fjolnir’s deity speaks to those in the know of the character’s likely genuine desire for peace and prosperity in contrast to the blood thirst of Amleth instilled by his father.

Mythological & spiritual elements outside of accurately presented witches and shamans are well integrated, believable and based in Norse mythology.

  • Though given to the name of a sword, ‘Draugr’ is also appropriate for its guardian who is found bearing it in a seated position and enters battle in a vision sequence. In norse mythology Draugr are re-animated corpses of the dead, seemingly related to improper position of burial and described as bloated, mottled black and possessing supernatural strength and powers. They could only be killed by decapitation and the proper burial positioning or burning of the corpse once ‘killed’.
  • The Valkyrie featuring in the film is depicted in scenes reminiscent of renaissance art & yet with a more fearsome and chilling reality closer to Norse mythology. In close up scenes viewers notice lines across the teeth you could be forgiven for mistaking as braces. The gruesome reality is they are reflective of a number of grave finds where lines are cut into the teeth and seemingly filled with coloured pigment. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction!
  • The imagery of a living tree from which people hung and grew was a reoccurring vision and narrative tool of the film, weaving families together as a beating vessel transcendent of the films space-time. This is of course is most likely symbolic of the world tree Yggdrasil.

The film also has quite possibly the most realistic trip I’ve seen in cinema since ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ in which the young protagonist touches his father’s pulsating wound and sees the connection of his fathers heart and it’s beating to the drum of time, of fate, to the great ancestor tree.

The success in all these areas is a result of genuine passion for history. Alexander Skarsgard who plays Amleth in the film had avidly pitched this role and really made this film happen through pure passion. More broadly the involvement of history & culture lovers includes Icelandic poet guy, Bjork, a host of consulted experts and the use of local Irish artists, including Connor & Audhild of Valhallas Silver, those being responsible for the show’s numerous and accurate jewellery pieces.

Sobering effect: The Vikings in popular culture are usually glorified in a way that doesn’t disturb the average viewer. Something far away and familiar of the kind of fantasy pirate narratives Disney would spew. The Northman does not shy away from the closer to home realities of violence in this age. Nor does he pretend that violent, murderous slavers were misunderstood saints.
The lead character perpetuates heinous blood crimes and disturbingly his often barbaric acts are forgiven by the viewer for the most part as being a result of the crimes before being committed against himself and as a result of his own ancestral nature.
He is a brute, a killer, a simple and savage animal, yet he is also capable of more. His redemption ark is cut short though, bound by fate/wyrd bound to a path of violence in order to close the circle of revenge killings. (There are parallels here in my reading of Odin’s apparent self sacrifice during Ragnarok which I’ve previously discussed here. The protagonist accepts his fate and the need ultimately for his own removal for an end to vengeance, a common theme in Norse mythology.)

The effect is a wake up for those who had allowed themselves to fall into the pirate romance; the rose-tinting fantasy accounts of Vikings as portrayed in popular media. Rather than alienate though, this makes Egger’s characters more relatable and in place of ridiculous cries of fantasy fans for ‘Valhalla!’ a sober minded viewer is left contemplating themes of peace and vengeance and tragedy; an accurate reflection of the original story captured by Grammaticus and Shakespeare.

So why is it a genre killer? The Northman represents the peak of Viking themed viewing. This film, whether you agree with me or not in this rave review, won’t be attempted at this scale for a generation now. I’d also say it is unlikely to be topped. It will be the bar by which others are judged and frankly it was so satiating to those who have longed for something like it (and have thought about doing it before, myself included at a time) that we may feel content to slow clap and exhale. It’s scratched the itch and I think many will now move on.

Or.. it just threw down the gauntlet for future historical epics of the ilk to passionate independent film makers. Hell, if a $60million budget falls on my lap I’ll give it a crack myself!