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The Northman

Director: Robert Eggers (USA). Year of Release: 2022

The Northman is the story of 10th Century (AD) Scandinavian prince Ameleth, whose chance of succession is dealt a severe blow when his father the king is murdered by his brother Fjölnir (later known for obvious reasons as Fjölnir the brotherless). Fjölnir takes on all the perks of kingship, including the bed of Ameleth’s mother, Queen Gudrun. Later in the film, Ameleth will hide behind an arras before confronting his mother in her bedchamber.

Sound familiar? Well, its not that The Northman has stolen from That Shakespeare play, but they do share an ancient Norse source. Though the way in which the film and the play deal with this source is quite different. This is not a film about indecision and doubt, but of men who hit you with an axe first and ask questions later. And, rather than being in the hands of the protagonists, much of The Northman’s plot consists of everyone waiting to meet their predestined fate.

After witnessing his father’s murder, Ameleth escapes his homeland, and joins a group of men who invade villages with their tops off, then scare the townsfolk and indulge in heavy-duty pillaging (you have the sense that there’s quite a bit of raping going on as well, but Ameleth is the hero, so can’t be directly identified with that sort of stuff). Then he meets Björk who is a seeress – of course she is – and reminds him that he’s supposed to be avenging his father’s murder.

Ameleth learns that Fjölnir’s usurpation was all in vain, as he has in turn been usurped by the Norwegian king. Fjölnir is now living as a sheep herd in Iceland, but there are sheep herds and sheep herds, and he is also in control of a bunch of slaves. Ameleth stows away in a slave boat headed for Iceland, all the time chanting the catechism: “I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you, Fjölnir.“

Along his travels, Ameleth meets a love interest Olga of the birch forest, and gets to play a form of hurling in which using your bat to whack your opponent in the head is not just permissible, it is encouraged (you wonder why some of the players even bother chasing the ball). He gets a promotion and is allowed to give Fjölnir’s other slaves some orders, but Fjölnir’s son makes it clear to him that he has absolutely no change of being granted his freedom.

But mostly, big men hit other big men repeatedly, until suddenly, about 90 minutes in, in the aforementioned scene in Gudrun’s bedchamber, there is a significant, and unexpected, plot twist. Arguably, there are two. But nothing is done with this development and soon we’re back to big men hitting each other with axes and broadswords and taking out each other’s innards.

There’s been an interesting discussion in the press about whether director Robert Eggers has – despite himself – made a Nazi film. He swears this wasn’t his intention – and there’s no reason to disbelieve him – but some of the headgear on show is not unlike that worn by the Qanon Shaman in the post-Trump invasion of the White House. For all that Eggers says that he wanted to win back Norse mythology back from the far right, I feel that he’s achieved a score drawer at best.

The main problem that I have with the film is its sexual politics. For all its pretensions to being a feminist film, it reeks of testosterone and toxic masculinity. This is the sort of film for which the Bechdel test was made – where the only real roles for women are those of damsel in distress, mother who must be avenged, and former Sugarcubes singer who has a couple of scenes to do her usual kooky schtick.

The Northman is basically a Marvel film with A levels. It (slightly smugly) shows its knowledge of Norse fable, and affects to respect ancient religions, though in practise this largely takes the form of someone making unintelligible metaphysical statements while dancing around in not much clothing. All of which is a shame, because I loved Eggers’ last film, the truly strange The Lighthouse. The Northman occasionally attempts similar weirdness, but lacks The Lighthouse’s wit and originality.

And yet, and yet. Just like The Lighthouse, The Northman looks magnificent. From the monochrome scenes of wind-tossed boats on stormy scenes, through the verdant scenes of Iceland’s endless countryside to the battles caked with blood and mud, the cinematography is simply astounding from start to end (the end is somewhat appropriately set at the Gates of Hell, aka an active volcano). Just sit back and watch – it’s not as if there’s too much plot to follow anyway.

I do get the feeling that this may be one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” moments. I did want to enjoy the Northman a lot more than I did, and there is enough spectacle there for it not to have been a wasted journey to the cinema. I just don’t quite think it managed to hit the balance between ostentatiously declaring that it has an important message and having anything to actually say.

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