What would happen if a Viking skald were armed with a modern Hollywood budget and set loose to create a film? Probably something quite like The Northman, an epic tale of fate and feuds culminating in a volcanic eruption of vengeance. Robert Eggers, director of The VVitch and The Lighthouse, marshals his facility with moody horror to depict pagan Scandinavia, red in tooth and claw. The film is striking, but it left me hungry for something beyond what it could ever offer, given its commitment to seeing the world through Viking eyes. By embracing the values of Viking culture, the film offers a hollow moral vision that ought to leave the audience unsettled.
The movie is based on a Scandinavian legend that also inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though Eggers reaches past the earliest surviving renditions of the tale to imagine a pre-Christian version. The broad strokes of the plot will sound familiar to anyone who knows Hamlet: A prince loses his father to treachery, is spurred to vengeance by otherworldly utterances, and at last confronts his fratricidal uncle in a clash that leaves the stage strewn with corpses. But here, this is no tragedy. Death in battle is a happy ending for a Viking, and after the massacre is complete, the film closes with a sense of accomplishment rather than futility.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, first a prince, then an exile, then a berserker, and ultimately an avenger. Save for his anachronistic abs, he’s every inch the ideal Norse warrior. Called to vengeance by the decrees of Odin and the memory of his father King Aurvandill War-Raven, he cuts a bloody swath through Iceland. Rounding out the cast are Claes Bang as Amleth’s uncle and enemy Fjölnir the Brotherless; Nicole Kidman as Gudrún, Amleth’s mother and queen to first Aurvandill and now Fjölnir; and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga, an enslaved Slavic woman who becomes Amleth’s ally and lover.
The film refuses to mold Amleth to contemporary expectations of heroism. His priorities are those of a Viking prince, not a Hollywood hero. To get a chance at vengeance, he disguises himself as a slave. This does not lead to him learning an important lesson about equality or empathy. His identification with the oppressed is a mere happenstance, in service of his overriding duty of retributive violence. Amleth claims he does not kill women, which is only sort of true. He certainly doesn’t object when, during his time going a-Viking in the Slavic lands, his fellow raiders herd captive women and children into a hut and set it alight. Only so many of them were worth the trouble to sell as slaves.
As with Amleth, so with his world. Eggers filmed on location in Northern Ireland and Iceland, and fills the rugged beauty of the scenery with casual murders, sports that turn deadly in a second, and matter-of-fact magic. Seers can speak for the dead or the gods, a magic sword can only be unsheathed in darkness or at the gates of Hel, and Valkyries carry those felled in battle to Valhalla. That’s just the way the world is. And when hungry ghosts stalk your farm and cut down your men, you consult your priestess about a propitiatory human sacrifice.
In a fascinating New Yorker profile, Eggers discussed delving into the Norse Eddas and Icelandic Sagas to develop this film. It also notes that Eggers rejects a possible Christian allusion in the story. The main action of the movie is set while Amleth is thirty-three, the same age as Jesus during the events of his Passion and Resurrection. A collaborator asked if that age had any significance. “Not to a Viking,” said Eggers.
I was surprised, then, to see references to Christianity in the movie. The people kidnapped and trafficked into slavery by Viking raiders are branded with crosses (Amleth brands himself, too, as part of his disguise). Olga is a Slavic pagan, but other slaves are evidently Christians, scorned by their Norse oppressors as “blood-drinking Christians” and worshippers of a hanged man. (Amleth is hanged, too, but Odin’s ravens come to peck him free of the ropes.) It’s as if Christianity is a bogeyman haunting the edge of this story; its hero keeps brushing up against Christian symbolism while remaining resolutely pre-Christian in outlook.
That very resoluteness is what makes the movie disappointing. Amleth’s end is just about as scorched-earth as the last act of Hamlet, and yet the movie frames it as a good way to go. All our leading players meet their ends with swords in hand, and so will presumably enjoy the good afterlife reserved for the valiant. Maintaining this tenor shows a real commitment to giving us a Viking’s-eye-view of life and death. But it also rings hollow, since, unlike the Vikings, we the audience do care about the children, slaves, and other non-warriors who became casualties of this feud along the way. The movie embraces the values of the culture it channels, but we cannot embrace them ourselves without moral injury.
As alluded to before, The Northman posits a pagan rendition of the legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It makes for an interesting counterpart to the play. Hamlet is similarly urged to vengeance, but plagued by doubts. Is his vengeance justified? Is he being misled by a deceitful spirit? How can he, fallible and fleshly, live up to being the scourge of his uncle’s corrupt court? These questions never trouble Amleth. The contrast shows how much of Hamlet’s trouble and Hamlet’s interest come from a Christian milieu. As Kenneth Colston observed in “Hamlet the Confessor,” the play is full of mangled rites and rituals that point to a spiritual unease reflecting the turbulent Reformation, especially the loss of sacramental confession. Are the old pagan rites of vengeance all that's left when priestly absolution is no more?
One more comparison is less obvious but more telling. The Northman can be fruitfully contrasted with Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of historical novels by Sigrid Undset that takes place a few centuries later in Norway. Kristin's Scandinavian setting has been Christianized, but people still spot elves in the forests or, when their faith is shaken by plague, turn to old memories of pagan blood sacrifices. It’s a world haunted by The Northman the way The Northman is haunted by the Christianity that will overcome it. Undset’s story includes a blood feud or two, but it is concerned principally with the moral stakes of marriage, parenthood, and household affairs, charting the sins and graces in one woman’s life over decades. It’s a story, in short, that goes deeper into ordinary life’s concerns than a Viking skald ever would. And it illustrates why paganism exerts a fascination when it lurks in the nooks and crannies of a baptized land, but feels like an exhausting, bestial bloodbath when allowed to fill the screen.
Alexi Sargeant is a cultural critic, writer, and editor.
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