The Northman, in which director Robert Eggers transforms Alexander Skarsård into legendary Viking Amleth, is the director’s biggest production yet. A grimy $90 million epic coated in sweat and soil, Eggers’ third feature unfolds with the steady rhythm of swords bashed against shields ahead of battle.
Then comes a twist—and kiss—that turns everything on its head, complicates Amleth’s hero narrative, and prompts an epic fight to the death that seems to double as a phallic joke.
The film’s early story beats will sound familiar to anyone who did a Shakespeare unit in high school: A young prince Amleth watches in horror from afar as his uncle, Fjölnir, murders his father. After watching his uncle carry his screaming mother to his fate, Amleth flees by boat—all the while vowing to return with three objectives: avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir.
Just one problem: Amleth’s mother doesn’t actually want to be saved.
When a grown Amleth (Skarsgård) shows up years later disguised as a slave to exact his revenge and rescue his mother, he discovers not a damsel but a devoted wife. Queen Gudrún seems to delight in Fjölnir’s company and adores their young son. It turns out that Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), was not that great of a guy! His brother’s not great, either, but he’s definitely a step up for Amleth’s mother, Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún.
It’s a brilliant reversal that underscores how futile Amleth’s fantasy of revenge has been all along. But then comes an even more unsettling twist: Gudrún points out to her son that aside from her, no one knows who he is yet. What if they ruled together? As she pulls him into a kiss, one must assume Freud’s ears are ringing from beyond the grave.
Skarsgard recently told E! News that when he and Kidman wrapped Big Little Lies, they both expressed an interest in working together again. “When the first draft of The Northman came in, it was no question, like, of course it was going to be Nicole Kidman.”
In the HBO series, as in The Northman, Kidman and Skarsgård played two people with an intense—or, as Skarsgård put it, “very dark, very dysfunctional, weird”—relationship. (Although, obviously, for very different reasons.) To get to that place on Big Little Liesthe actor said, he and his co-star had to establish a lot of trust.
“After two months of shooting the big set pieces, to be in an intimate scene, a five-page beautifully written dialogue scene with Nicole, was definitely one of the highlights of the entire shoot for me,” Skarsgård said.
Anyone who’s seen a Robert Eggers film knows how much he relishes the surreal. The Witch gave us Anya Taylor-Joy chatting up a demonic talking goat before floating naked into the treetops, and we don’t have enough time to even begin unpacking Robert Pattinson’s mermaid masturbation scene in The Lighthouse. Such flourishes continue through The Northman; beyond that twist, we are presented hallucinogenic images of wolves and oiled-up bodies that would make Conan the Barbarian proud.
“Beyond recontextualizing Amleth’s obsession with vengeance and Valhalla, that disturbing kiss also ushers in the film’s trippiest sequence.”
Beyond recontextualizing Amleth’s obsession with vengeance and Valhalla, that disturbing kiss also ushers in the film’s trippiest sequence. When the queen’s seduction attempt fails, Amleth butchers both her and his half-brother. With them gone, there’s only one thing left to do: fight to the death.
Cue a fight scene intense enough to make 300 shake in its sandals.
Amleth and Fjölnir battle through fire and brimstone, their bodies nude and glistening like a couple of Abercrombie & Fitch models after a rugby shoot. As their figures move in silhouette, it’s hard not to interpret their clashing swords as anything but a phallic joke. How fitting: Moments after our hero finds out what should make him realize how futile his life’s violent “purpose” is, he challenges his uncle to a dick-swinging competition.