' ' Cinema Romantico: The Northman

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Northman

“The Northman” culls its story of a slain King and the son who would avenge him from Norse mythology and the most mythological text of all, Hamlet. Hamlet, though, contained plenty of space for, shall we say, poetic self-analysis. There is not much reflection in “The Northman,” and what little there is plays out as mere stilted exposition. No, for all the historically accurate costume and production design, Robert Eggers’s film frequently feels more like “Gladiator” strained its political maneuvering, leaving only the brutality and violence. The human characters here are consciously reduced to savages, virtually dependent upon the gods as a guiding hand. Not for nothing does the movie open with the Norse god Odin intoning over images of a fiery volcano. Moments like this, more than the historical accuracy, evoke “The Northman’s” viewpoint, forgoing any kind of modern subtextual bent to evince a world where earth and the supernatural exist on the same plain. When Eggers occasionally cuts to images of Valhalla opening its doors somewhere in the space time continuum, these are not dreamlike but rendered with the same genuine intensity as everything else; there really is a giant hall in the sky.

As “The Northman” begins, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is returning from battle, his son Amleth (Oscar Novak) eager to see him. The camera lingering on the will-be heir’s smiling face comes across almost like a taunt, a fleeting moment of joy and innocence that will be swiftly shattered and never repeated. Indeed, flouting convention, the King is not returning a conquering hero but beaten and wounded, and in kind of 895 AD version of prepping your child for life’s reality, leads Amleth a hallucinatory ceremony where they get down all fours and howl like wolves, men cast as animals, the actors whole-hearted commitment underlining the movie’s own. The King is prescient, murdered not long after by his own brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) who absconds with Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth evades death and flees. We meet up with him some twenty years into the future (played by Alexander Skarsgård ) where he has become an apply monikered Berserker, looting, pillaging, killing. But when a Seeress (Bjork) advises that soon he will avenge his father, that’s that, and soon he’s tracked his father’s brother to Iceland to get even.

“The Northman,” isn’t funny, not exactly, not in the way Willem Dafoe could suddenly, unexpectedly make you laugh out loud in the otherwise unbearable previous Eggers effort “The Lighthouse.” But there is something blackly comic in the matter-of-fact yet heightened way that fate looms over everything, a Middle Ages parallel of the Not So Distant Future of Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” where characters knew their date and time of death when they were born, yielding comfort rather than fear in such a brutal world. Because Aurvandill and Amleth are fated to die in battle, Hawke and Skarsgård play their moments in battle with a gleaming cockiness; they know they are untouchable. On the flip side, there is a seemingly throwaway moment later when we see a crew of Vikings just sort of jokingly shooting a couple innocent no-names with arrows. Dog Eat Dog, perhaps, but it also made me wonder about their fate being subscribed: fated to die in the dumbest way possible.

It is doubly interesting to note how the camera takes in the demise of these no-names, just kind of gliding by and half-observing them, in the manner of glancing at a car wreck as you drive by. It underscores the comically pitifulness of the moment, but it also underscores how the camera of Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke is virtually alive. The frequent long takes are not just for show but a manifestation of the overriding societal emphasis on fate. When we find Amleth in the future, the camera is first moving forward through a boat, toward the stern, when suddenly it swerves right, picking up Amleth as he rows, as if fate is latching itself back onto him. And the long takes of moments in battle are conspicuous in their mannered choreography, which might have been an issue if it didn’t seem to both capture the trance Berserkers supposedly entered when going to war and, again, suggest fate as a guiding hand, effortlessly leading Amleth through.

This idea of the camera as a guiding light gets flipped, though, in the movie’s best scene, after Amleth has worked his way into his father’s brother’s farm as a slave, biding his time. He seeks out his mother and reveals his true identity and his true plans. Though I will refrain from spoiling it exactly, this revelation does not go as planned, the former Queen turning the whole declaration around, evoked in the camera which rather than going forward moves backward, as if terrified of her, of Kidman, who virtually turns to ice before our eyes, revealing this cruel world as even crueler than we already knew.

It signals “The Northman’s” desire to pit fate and against free will, furthered in the enslaved sorcerer Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) with whom Amleth falls in love. Alas, Skarsgård never evinces the humanity ostensibly imbued by her sorcery, and Olga is rendered with next to no humanity herself, betrayed in the ethereal way Eggers lights her in some of their scenes, more unearthly than the recurring images of Valhalla, reducing her to a symbol, nothing more. What’s worse, the visual splendor of the concluding mano-a-mano showdown on the edge of a volcano, each one like a painting hung in a heavy metal art gallery, winds up just as phony because “The Northman” cheats by allowing Amleth to both embrace free will by seeing through his fate, or maybe see through his fate by embracing free will, a conspicuous dodge that all the historical authenticity in the world cannot overcome. 

Kidman, though.

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