Robert Eggers has carved out a formidable task for himself in his violent epic, “The Northman”. The film reaches back into our love of myth as a key to understanding the origins of culture, and it does this by steeping us into barbaric, pre-literate tribal life in a hardship environment. Naturally, raw masculine power will rule, and there is scant evidence in the story of the softer, more civilized habits of primitive culture, namely the influence of women.
But the means Eggers has chosen presents problems, especially for viewers unfamiliar with Nordic myth. The story is basically a revenge tale covering many years, and it often refers to specific nordic gods, locations, kingdoms and rituals that are splayed out in front of us, without context or identification.
It begins with the return of King Aurvandill, played by Ethan Hawke, from foreign wars. Exhausted and in pain from his wounds, he is anything but triumphant. His bastard brother, Fjolnir, played by Claes Bang, gives him an icy welcome. Feeling that his death in battle is imminent, Aurvandill takes his son to the secret chamber that prepares the king’s successor for leadership. Named Amieth and only 13, the boy clearly idolizes his father, and performs in the bloody ritual obediently. As they leave the lodge, Fjolnir arrives with a troop on horseback and slays Aurvandill in front of the boy. Amieth escapes and sails away to safety, but only after seeing his mother, Queen Gudrun, played by Nicole Kidman, taken prisoner by his uncle.
This is the prologue, but the story proper begins some years later. The fully grown Amieth is now played by Alexander Skarsgard. After usurping the throne, Fjolnir is himself overthrown and lives in Iceland in exile. Posing as a slave, Amieth fakes capture so that he can be sold to Fjolnir, and get close enough to avenge his father’s death. But a seeress, played by Bjork in a wildly camp outfit, reveals that he will fail.
He meets a slave girl, Olga, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. They fall in love, and, pregnant from their lovemaking, she pleads with him to forget his promise, and escape with her. Painfully, Amieth rejects her. He reminds her that a seeress had once told him he would one day have to choose between obedience to his king, or avenging his father’s death. He gives his answer to Olga: “I choose both”.
At that point, I knew that the film would not end happily. In a fearsome two-man duel, superbly filmed, we are given a satisfactory climax to a sad tale. The closing shot of Olga in the future, with the twin boys prophecied as the new royal line, is not much to uplift us.
The film itself is long, dramatically slow and rather an ordeal to sit through. Both men and women speak a kind of Schwartzen-English, that is when we aren’t just shown big brutes in rags grunting and howling. But the mock-epic treatment supposedly serves a serious purpose: to illuminate the violent origins of all social interaction, which today’s belief in peace needed to overcome.
But has it? Eggers knows he can’t answer that question, and he wisely doesn’t try. His lesser, but still difficult task is presenting a credible vision of a tribal culture where people cooperated enough to survive the harsh elements, and obey simple rules to preserve order. A kind of paradigm of human pre-history. Unfortunately, this complicated but often silly story doesn’t deliver.
The nordic wilderness is often beautiful, and the people are recognizably human in their behaviors in that environment. The houses, fashion and crude ships show how a primitive people cooperated to create a degree of comfort for themselves. However, there is little closeness, warmth or reason in evidence. The need to define and kill your enemy is the primary engine of the story, which means that the action, physical and emotional, is about killing, not building. This reduces the action to comic book adventure, which never needs ambiguity or historical accuracy to succeed. All motive is monochrome, and any historical verisimilitude is irrelevant.
The single attempt to show some psychological complexity comes late in the film, in the Queen’s startling confession. It’s a long speech, and Kidman is transfixing. But her death soon after fails to resolve the basic question: was everything Amieth believed about his father a lie? Eggers seems to feel that by concluding the story without giving a clear answer, the viewer is challenged to re-examine the entire film; that either explanation is dramatically credible. But that’s not what it did for me. It made me realize how little I cared about these characters.