The Northman review: The Viking epic refuses to be modern

In the 12th century or thereabouts, a fellow we know today as Saxo Grammaticus sat down to write a history of Denmark, a chronicle of its mythology, history, and conquests. I doubt he knew that his work would inspire generations of adaptations. But, as fate would have it, two of his 16 books told a rolling tale of Amleth, grandson of a king. Amleth’s father was murdered by his brother, Amleth’s uncle, who then married Amleth’s mother. Amleth feigned madness to escape his uncle’s sword, but eventually he took his revenge.

Historians believe Saxo Grammaticus’s account of Amleth was itself an adaptation, based on older Icelandic poems. But it would be far from the final retelling of the tale. Most famously, a few centuries later, an English playwright used Amleth’s tale as the inspiration for the story of a Danish prince who avenged his own father’s death at the hand of his uncle-cum-stepfather. He titled it The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

And now — in a time when medieval legends seem to be increasingly sparking filmmakers’ imaginations — The Northman, a bone-crunching Viking epic from detail-obsessed director Robert Eggers, is based on Amleth’s legend as well. (To put it another way: if you feel while watching The Northman like you’re watching a Shakespeare adaptation, you are wrong, but only kind of.)

Skarsgard in The Northman.
Courtesy of Focus Features

A recent New Yorker profile delves into the meticulous research that Eggers — who was similarly attentive to historical accuracy in his earlier features, The Witch and The Lighthouse — engaged in making The Northman. It stars an extremely ripped Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth alongside Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe, and Björk. Eggers, who co-wrote the film with the Icelandic Sjón, had historians of Icelandic and Viking history on speed-dial throughout production. The filmmakers integrated archaeological discoveries and ancient symbology into the film; they recreated the past so carefully that, as the New Yorker put it, this “might be the most accurate Viking movie ever made.” It’s far more intricate than your average layperson, or even your above-average layperson, would probably be able to recognize, even upon a dozen rewatches.

But for all its production-related fidelity to the era — at least as much as is possible for a story that takes place shortly before 930 AD, when Iceland’s parliament was established — The Northman‘s story is more of a loose adaptation. That mixing and morphing of old stories, giving mythic characters new characteristics, is something Eggers enjoys; when I talked to him about The Lighthouse in 2019, he noted that “the classical authors did that all the time.”

So The Northman‘s Amleth has a life quite different from the one in Saxo Grammaticus’s tale. He is a boy prince recently initiated by his father (Hawke) and their witch-priest (Dafoe) into his royal responsibilities, who sees his uncle Fjölnir (Bang) kill his father and carry away his mother, Queen Gudrún (Kidman). He flees the scene, and an adviser tells the new King Fjölnir that Amleth has drowned. Amleth vows to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir, and his vow turns to a kind of mantra as he grows to adulthood.

As a man, Amleth is a roving Viking, pillaging and murdering his way across Europe, when he catches wind that Fjölnir and Amleth’s family now live in Iceland, Fjölnir having lost his kingdom. Amleth poses as a slave, joining a group of captured Slavs in order to get close to his hated uncle. Among them is a seer (Taylor-Joy); the two plot to take his revenge, fully aware that his fate, to avenge his father no matter the cost, is always lurking.

Care The Northman there is feigning, but not of madness. There are many more twists and turns in Saxo Grammaticus’s account than in the film, including sojourns in England and Scotland and many brushes with death, but there’s no sign of The Northman‘s seer. And in the film’s more straightforward telling, fate has other tricks up its sleeve, particularly in the case of Gudrún. The Northman, set in a world where dreams, supernatural forces, and magic are as real as mud and blood, emphasizes within Amleth’s story the Vikings’ deep-seated belief in the inescapability of fate. The core remains familiar, a tale of treachery and bravery and villainy, but this is a new spin on a very old story.

That isn’t to say it’s a modern spin. Thanks goodness.

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman.

Fate comes for us all.
Courtesy of Focus Features

Amleth is not a modern man dropped into the Vikings’ world; he doesn’t really think or act like us. There’s no sense here of defending his individual honor. Though he talks of reclaiming what’s been taken from him, it’s his sense of being woven into a broader history, a history that needs straightening out, that drives him. He’s the rightful king, but not of some great nation-state; he stands to gain very little if he regains that position. And the few things that seem to make him happy, like his love, are of very little consequence to him in the face of fate. He’s fascinating, but you don’t really want to emulate him. Braveheart this is not.

His choices make little sense to us. They aren’t really supposed to. He isn’t chasing fame or glory or salvation or some kind of patriotic duty, in the manner of the tales of heroism Hollywood movies often tell. His incantation-like drive to avenge, save, and kill turns out to be built on shaky foundations. And in the end, it all feels a little futile. He’s just on the path set out for him by the inexorable will of fate, a force that’s more like gravity than anything we’ve seen.

That means that, among recent films set in medieval eras, The Northman is a lot closer to the weird, spooky, somewhat inexplicable The Green Knight than The Last Duel, which is populated by people who seem like they’re basically us but really regressive and mean. It also makes it a bit more inscrutable and a lot less “satisfying,” if we measure film-watching satisfaction in terms of catharsis. We modern moviegoers want a swell of triumph, even if our hero dies.

The marketing team for The Northman seems to know this, spinning up a trailer that makes it feel more like a chilly, wet Gladiator than what it really is: something very weird and gnarly and bombastic and explosive. The poster’s tagline is “Conquer Your Fate,” which is exactly what Amleth doesn’t do. He doesn’t even think he can do it. He is a hero, of a sort, and a tragic one. We’re still telling his story.

If you can extract a modern message from The Northman — that “toxic masculinity” has been destroying men for literal eons, that women have been granted limited agency to push back — it’s really not the point of this retelling of Saxo Grammaticus’s already retold tale. Eggers recreated, with obsessive accuracy, the world of the medievals in order to lower us into a myth that feels primordial and strange, as if it’s tapping into something in the back of our minds that we’ve always known but half forgotten. Today we assume we have agency, that we’re the captains of our own ships. But thousands of years ago, the assumption was different. They might have known something we don’t.

The Northman is playing in theaters.

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