THE NORTHMAN: So Art Thou to Revenge…

by Patrick Lugo

There’s probably no single reason we’re looking back on the dim dark days of first century Europe, but it’s been a popular subject on the small screen for some time. Either that or Netflix really did do an effective job of promoting the acquisition of the Vikings franchise in VIKINGS: VALHALLA to accompany season 5 of THE LAST KINGDOM which cover similar battlefields but from the pre-English perspective. Neither of which should be confused with the hilarious Netflix three-season series NORTHMEN.

In the gap between epic fantasy franchises those viewers are being called into theaters by a kind of new sub-genre; the art-house-medieval-literary-adaptation with swords. Twenty-twenty-on saw the release of THE GREEN KNIGHT, a classic tale of honor based on the 14th century Arthurian poem and previously adapted in 1973 and 1984. The latter of which is better known for Sean Connery’s portrayal of the titular character. Honorable mention should be made of the Netflix original movie THE KING (2019), a BATMAN BEGINS (2008) style gritty remake of Shakespeare’s HENRY V.

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood.

– William Shakespeare

THE NORTHMAN is the third film by production designer turned writer/director Robert Eggers. His first feature film THE WITCH (2015) used 17th century journals from John Winthrop and others to craft an iconic tale of Puritanism vs. Witchcraft in a haunted New England. This was the break-out film for QUEEN’S GAMBIT star Anya Taylor-Joy, who returns to portray the third magic using maiden of her career.

Egger’s second film THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) added a second entry into his filmography of “elevated horror” films. A loose adaptation of Edger Allan Poe’s un-finish story The Light-House. Another period horror set on a barren coast featuring a tour de force depiction of a haunted light house keeper by one Willem Dafoe.

After delivering two movies like those it’s clear our director has a keen eye for the dark. This night-vision extends deeply into his third most ambitious film. A tale of revenge so old as to seem obvious, but this Viking saga strives for more than to be a gritty remake of a Shakespearian classic. It’s also meant to be an adaptation of the 12th-century Amlethus.

Come: ‘the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’

– William Shakespeare

Amleth (Amlethus or Amlóði) is the legendary medieval Scandinavian legend who inspired William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Amleth is mentioned in Iceland’s 13th century text, the Prose Edda and his story is as iconic as any revenge driven Kung Fu movie’s plot. A young boy’s life is irrevocably changes when his uncle slays his father, takes his mother and leaves him with only a vow of revenge. The story is largely similar whether is EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977) or THE LION KING (1994). But as auteur with such diabolical tastes might say; the devil is in the details.

With only three films to examine it’s both easy and ill-advised to make broad statements on Eggers’ cinematic style, but I’ll do so anyway. He seems to create a completely immersive environment – something to be expected from a former production designer. He then presents it in an almost theatrical fashion and this actually works to heighten the movies sense of reality – a reality he then undermines to horrific existential effect.

In THE NORTHMAN, Eggers’ vision is much wider than both his previous films combined. It encompasses multiple settings and characters while taking place over a larger span of time. Yet it’s the details that make those ice swept vistas so viscerally intimate.

Eggers eschews raging shield walls and bellowing crowds charging across a muddy field – the stuff which makes most Viking shows entertaining. But that’s not to say there isn’t some brutal combat. It wouldn’t be Viking without it. The action instead is very personal and sanguineous. Eggers once told Total Film magazine “I knew it needs to take place mostly in Iceland, it needs to have a revenge story, and it needs to have a naked sword fight on a volcano…” But is goes much further than that.

From this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

– William Shakespeare

It turns out leading man. Alexander Skarsgård, had been on the quest to become a movie Viking since 2011. After a couple of false starts, the man who played Eric Northman (TRUE BLOOD 2008 – 2014) the Viking vampire has found the role he was born to play. As a prince turned berserker in disguise as a slave, his Amleth is surrounded by an amazing cast of performers including Nicole Kidman, Björk, and Willem Dafoe (again), all of whom deliver total commitment to their roles.

This movie is unashamedly pagan and almost decidedly masculine. More realized than a 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014) with all its digitally burnished blood and bronze abs, this is not a THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013) kind of date movie. There are no sensitive Norse gods in very clean clothing, but those gods are very present throughout the film.

It’s not just Odin, or the Valkyrie that show up, but the entirety of Norse cosmology is presented in an almost firsthand account of the psychedelic quality of sharing a harsh land with blood-thirsty gods. Hallucinogenic mushrooms appear in two out of his three films, and if Eggers is as familiar with the hallucinogens that his movie making would have us believe, then his trips have probably taken him to some very dark places. But it’s the work of Icelandic poet, novelist and one-time vocalist for The Sugarcubes, Sjón, along with a team of archeologists, folklorists and historians which suffuse THE NORTHMAN with its verisimilitude.

And where the offence is let the great axe fall.

– William Shakespeare

When it comes to the talent behind the action, Jón Viðar Arnþórsson is a Karate champion with enough BJJ experience to have successfully coached 200 MMA fights before opening a kickboxing gym in Kópavogur Iceland and getting hired on as stunt coordinator. Assisting him is GLADIATOR (2000) veteran Stuart John Clark who more recently worked on the second unit for BLACK WIDOW (2021). Finally, Sports University graduate and former member of the stunt team for such movies as SKIPTRACE (2016) and TAI CHI YOGA (2017) was specifically listed as part of the fight rehearsal team along.

That’s a unique title to hold among the more than thirty other stunt performers that worked on this film. But those rehearsals were essential to the epic done-in-one sequences of action or violence that regularly attack the film’s two-hour-and-sixteen-minute run time. It’s these oners which act to heighten the movie’s reality, increasing tension as the its story marches towards its volcanic conclusion. Perhaps Skarsgård said is best while describing one such fight seen to The New Yorker magazine “To do that in a scene with ten actors, twenty stunt guys, three hundred extras, horses, fire—it drives you crazy.”