Too Close for Comfort
By Katherine Connell
Dir. Robert Eggers, U.S., Focus Features
The Northman begins with the ultimate paternal arrival: the return of a king. The Viking procession of Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is spotted from afar by his son Amleth (Oscar Novak). As much as this regal entrance establishes patriarchal masculinity as the film’s starting point, its potency is undermined by the introduction of another, more unnerving dynamic when Amleth—overstimulated with excitement—runs into a private dressing chamber occupied by his disrobed mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and is swiftly chastised. While the buzzy pageantry of King Aurvandil’s royal homecoming provides familiar initiation into historical epics of this nature, Amleth’s mommy misdemeanor is more reflective of the social transgressions that define Robert Eggers’s previous features The Witch (2014) and The Lighthouse (2019).
Rather than enrich meaning, the experimental stylistic cadences and overstuffed references of The Lighthouse turned over empty signifiers. Whether genuine or manufactured, its encyclopedic cinephilia did associate Eggers’s filmmaking with an arthouse seriousness that does The Northman certain favors. The film’s hero-quest narrative lunges towards mainstream entertainment by superimposing Marvel movie gloss (glazed, strangely de-eroticized bodies whose superhuman stamina provides generative ground for lengthy, acrobatic fight scenes) onto the usual conceptual thrust of superhero films: the mythology of a specially marked protagonist negotiating their fate and free will. Creating tension with this surprising pivot—one afforded by the film’s now much discussed production budget exceeding 70 million dollars—is Eggers’s tenacious impression of academic literariness, both in the magnitude of his own historical research, as well as shared authorship of the screenplay with Icelandic writer Sjón.
Of course, the conceptual underpinnings of The Northman are some of the oldest ideas, with the film borrowing largely from Icelandic sagas and the appearance of Amleth in Scandinavian legends that provide the basis for Shakespeare’s interpretation of the character in Hamlet. The film’s revenge plot—set in motion when Amleth watches his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his father in cold blood—tends to recall Game of Thrones more than the Bard, as tiny Amleth escapes in a small rowboat while whispering an Arya Stark–like vengeance mantra through tears. Reintroduced in adulthood as a hardened warrior embodied by a jacked, feral Alexander Skarsgård, Amleth is singularly defined by the potency of his rage, which takes on animalistic dimensions in village raids with a group of berserkers.
Insofar as The Northman is critical of masculine rage, its seeming mimicry of and intertextual appeal to bro-y cultural sensibilities has subversive potential, especially because Amleth is revealed as more of a wounded himbo than a shrewd warrior. But The Northman is far too reticent to enter the realm of self-parody, a considerable letdown given that The Witch features a talking goat and The Lighthouse ties the entirety of its bawdy action to the phallic symbolism of its titular structure. It’s odd, then, to find Eggers declining to chew up the scenery for some of Amleth’s funnier poor decisions. After undergoing significant trial to acquire an enchanted blade, Amleth tries to bury it in loose dirt before hiding it in the straw roof of a house owned by his enslaver: why isn’t more made of the fact that our studly hero doesn’t know where to put his sword?
Though certainly less chaotic than The Lighthouse in unearthing repressed desires beneath manly bravado, The Northman suffers from a similar overestimation of both the perversity and brutality of its imagination. When a prophecy delivered by a seeress (Björk) cements that Amleth’s revenge is destined rather than desired—he’ll kill Fjölnir atop a fiery lake—he disguises himself as a slave by sneaking onto a ship bound for an Icelandic sheep farm overseen by his homicidal uncle who has now married Queen Gudrún, with whom he shares a son. When Amleth finally reveals himself to his mother in her dressing room—a restaging of his childhood faux pas—Gudrún seems tickled rather than grateful for her son’s earnest plea to save her. Not only was the former queen repulsed by Aurvandil, but she also ordered her late husband’s murder. Amleth meets this shattering disillusion with nauseated denial, a reaction that only seems to encourage Gudrún, who goads her son, intensifying the tension between them until they meet inan open-mouthed kiss. Though this mother-son smooch is the film’s most shocking moment, there’s a certain unwillingness to extend the discomfort of the moment or let more surprising dynamics emerge in its wake.
In mistaking psychoanalytic gotchas for genuine transgression and the evocation of Freud for actual Freudian weirdness, The Northman is ultimately too palatable. While this sanitization might be partially chalked up to studio expectations overriding artistic edge, many of the film’s problems exceed post-production issues, of which even Eggers has claimed too much has been made. Amleth’s lover Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy)—another slave and sorceress of earth magic—is established by way of a snappy, proto-feminist soundbite: “You have the strength to break their bones, I have the cunning to break their minds.” But Olga’s actions are entirely in service of Amleth realizing his destiny rather than her own longed-for liberation. At worst, her onscreen positioning seems largely aesthetic; her character is trapped within narrative and frame alike. After enduring torture, an injured Amleth (nursed back to health by a very maternal Olga) announces that “he’s changed” and given up on his anger. Embracing on the deck of an escape vessel, Olga reveals she’s pregnant with twins, at which point Amleth jumps ship (literally) and breaststrokes back to Fjölnir’s farm in the name of protecting his children, whom he has envisioned on the Tree of Kings, a fictional concept modeled after the Norse cosmological center Yggdrasil.
Fossilized by its own obsessive accuracies, The Northman neglects potential takeaways from contemporary audiences of non-experts. While an impressively mounted production, the film can’t help but romanticize Vikings despite the anxious intentions of its filmmaker. As with his previous film, it’s uncertain whether The Northman communicates what Eggers wants to about masculinity, or if it’s based in a muddled collection of unfinished thoughts and theories which, although compelling, are raised then dropped. The final showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir ends in their mutual death atop the “Gates of Hel” (Iceland’s Helka volcano). On its own, this ending would have made for compact, if obvious, illustration of the futility and self-destruction of single-minded vengeance. But The Northman sidesteps a condemnation of Amleth’s cruelty for a celebration of his heroics. A dying Amleth makes celestial ascent towards Valhalla on the back of a Valkyrie, during which he receives a vision of Olga holding their children. It’s an odd repatriation of the heterosexual family unit (albeit a Viking one) in a film that has spent the more effective parts of its runtime figuratively and then literally tearing it apart.
Still, there’s a gruesome but provocative image that gets buried in this finale. Before Amleth climbs the volcano to meet Fjölnir, he glimpses the corpses of his mother and her child arranged in the grass, dragged to the scene by a father already decapitated by grief. It’s a welcome, albeit disturbing, disruption from the pleasures of historical hyperreality: there are no heroes here, only bodies; Amleth’s grotesque destruction of one family allows his own to flourish. Though it captures a momentary glimpse of a film that could have been, this peek behind the curtain is all too brief.