The Northman – a review

Alexander Skarsgård proving that even in freezing Iceland a real man needs no poncy T-shirt

Based on a traditional Norse saga of murder and revenge, allegedly a tale stolen by Shakespeare for his Hamlet stage play, plot kept nice and domestically in the family, Robert Eggers production is ambitious, as equally rousing as repetitive. If you know the story of Hamlet you will know the story of Amleth: he witnesses his father’s murder and his mother taken by his father’s brother, and swears to have revenge on his uncle and all his kith and kin, an unhealthy thing for a young boy to make his life’s ambition. Unlike the uncertain Hamlet, full of doubts, Amleth does not dither or swither. He gets down and dirty soon as a muscular man, skilled with a mighty sword.

There are also moments when you want to laugh out loud at the plain silly bits, which is not a good thing considering there are no jokes, no humour, only bloody gore, chopped heads, eviscerated entrails, and woman as chattel. Even horses get it in the neck. And when Amleth pretends to be a slave I had the feeling I was watching ‘Spartacus the Viking’. I only managed the two hours and seventeen minutes because I was sitting in a comfy, adjustable cinema seat. Films straining to be epics but without the intellectual depth of storyline to sustain their length are a pain.

For the most part, set in harshly beautiful, austere Icelandic landscapes, my mind kept asking where the villagers got all the wood that they had used to build their substantial houses, their furniture, to build the pens for their horses and livestock, and whole tree trunks from which to fashion their elegant boats. There was not a wood or tree in sight for hundreds of miles in all directions. Yet every so often Amleth – Alexander Skarsgård plays the central beefcake role, our anti-hero – arrives in scenes carrying a huge bundle of kindling on his back.

I guess, being a story of myth and magic, if we suspend disbelief for the many dream sequences, and how life was unbelievably short and brutal to the point Denmark must have been a soulless empty place, we should do the same for conjuring wood and food and fantastically woven clothes from thin air.

The story of Viking prince Amleth (Hamlet), follows the plot of the Elizabethan stage play pretty faithfully, but in quality of dialogue never achieves the poetry of Shakespeare’s version though the writers, the one-name Sjón and Eggers himself, try hard to give the speech the sound of a great tragedy. Characters talk in short bursts, and do a lot of roaring at each other, rather as if mimicking Andy Murray frustrated at missing a drop-ball shot. Tenderness one person to another is restricted to Amleth and his love interest, the impossibly blonde blond, Anya, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.

For some mysterious reason the lead women are always dirt free, while the peasant women are always mucky as a pup in a mud puddle. There is all-out acting: right down to bare buff, stereotypical male macho acting. There is middling acting: Amleth’s villainous brother Fjölnir The Brotherless (Claes Bang – I double checked his name is real), and there is first rate acting: Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún. This latter role is a Lady Macbeth interpretation from Nicole Kidman easily the best thing on screen when she appears. There is also a cameo from Björk as a mystical seeress bedecked in silver ornamentation and headgear so heavy a wonder she can stand up, and the wonderful William Dafoe as Hiemer the Fool, shamelessly underused in a brief one-scene cameo, there to give us the Norse equivalent of ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ moment. Ethan Hawke appears as Amleth’s father but doesn’t reappear as the ghost of Amleth’s father on any battlement or mountain top, a sad miss, actually.

The music from Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is ominous drumbeats from start to finish of the type I heard in stage productions in the Seventies, and now the standard cliché for every movie trailer under the sun no matter the subject matter. The fine cinematography is from the eye and technical prowess of Jarin Blaschke, but again like so much on the screen leaves us cold and empty.

There are lots of dark malevolent shots of figures standing framed in doorways, another old style image beloved of John Ford and lesser western directors. As a director, Eggers revels in gloomy interiors and hyper-gloomy exteriors. Whether shot out of doors with a bonfire in the scene or a roaring fire in a longhouse, everything is in half-light and without warmth.

In fact, too much of the bloodthirsty action and scenescapes leave us searching for a warm fur jacket and a pair of mittens. There are no characters with which to identify. All the men are suitably bearded, war-like or in the female case, hard working skivvies washing laundry in a stream, cooking dinner demurely, or running screaming from tumescent warriors.

Try as hard as I could, I could not empathise with anybody. They were all victims of their own twisted emotions and horrible ambitions. What it taught me was Norse gods are as violent as the Christian god.

This is not a film to take a new girlfriend, partner or mother. But Arnold Schwarzenegger will love it.

  • STAR RATING: Three stars
  • Cast: Alexander Skarsgård. Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor Joy
  • Director: Peter Eggers
  • Writer: Peter Eggers, Sjón
  • Cinematographer:  Jarin Blaschke
  • Composer: Robin Carolan, Sebastian Gainsborough
  • Duration: 2 hours 17 minutes
  • Adult rating: 15
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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4 Responses to The Northman – a review

  1. Doreen Milne says:

    Enjoyed this review very much, Gareth.
    ‘…the lead women are always dirt free, while the peasant women are always mucky as a pup in a mud puddle.’ and other wee gems like this made me smile.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Reviewing this film, I notice a good few critics begin with the cliche, “I really wanted to like this film …” Well, I went knowing it was a blood thirsty sword and revenge drama, disappointed to see it never rose above that description. It had a kind of ‘Spartacus the Viking’ about it. Good visuals don’t compensate for a one-note indulgence. Wasting decent images makes it seriously pretentious. But for two hours I forgot my woes and watched others suffers theirs. 🙂

  3. Itchybiscuit says:

    That pretty much sums it up pal. When he began to put his plan into action on Iceland, my mind began to wander. Lovely cinemaphotography, if bleak. I even noticed a cameo from Kate Dickie, I recognised her voice before I recognised her. In summary, I enjoyed the first part more than the second. In my mind, the first part was everything that took place up until he boarded the longship for his journey to Iceland.

    Thanks for the review, it clarified a few things which were lurking at the back of my mind but couldn’t quite put my finger on.

  4. diabloandco says:

    Another money saving review!

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