Those familiar with HAMLET will find some familiar things in Robert Eggers’ THE NORTHMAN, and that is no coincidence. The source material for both is Sjón’s Gesta Danorum (circa 1200) about a prince with both mommy issues and a usurping uncle. Where Shakespeare adapted the story to his time creating an elegantly and eloquently melancholy protagonist, Eggers has embraced the wildness of the original, creating a world of primal ritual where the spirit realm regularly interacts with the material one, and life is nasty, brutish, and short. Mercifully so, if we can take the word of Amleth’s father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), whose fondest hope is to die in battle rather than be disgraced by lingering into decrepit old age. It does give a whole new cast to the ending, and if only for that, Eggers is to be highly commended.
This Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), more direct in his speech and far less elegant by modern standard, is the beloved son of Aurvandil and Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). On the last sunny day of his childhood, his father newly returned from battle with the spoils of same, takes young Amleth to an overnight, underground ritual that will mark him as his heir and usher him into manhood. The mind-altering substance involved along with the burps and farts that separate humans from the beasts, affords fantastic visions (the first of many in a film dense with symbolism and savagery), and bonds father and son so tightly that when brother and Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) sets upon them as they leave the ritual caverns, it commits Amleth to a life pledged to avenging his father, saving his mother from the rapacious Fjölnir, and killing said rapacious Fjölnir. It is the invective the young prince spews as a mantra as he rows away from certain death into the Land of the Rus.
Years pass, and the young man, now grown to ferocious manhood as a warrior pillaging the countryside, learns the fate of his treacherous uncle. He summarily decides to pass himself off as a slave in order to infiltrate the king’s exile settlement in Iceland, and take his revenge. He meets the sly and subte Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fellow slave who isn’t fooled by his disguise, but who is taken with his plans and offers to break minds the way Amleth plans on breaking bones.
Eggers spares us little of what made Northmen (aka Vikings) so feared. The scenes of just how the Rus decimate a peaceful village without mercy or even much thought as to the humanity of their victims, is the stuff of nightmares. This Amleth is no scholar home from university dithering about what to do. This is a killing machine whipped into a Berserker. Skarsgård embodies the physicality effortlessly and imbues this tortured soul with an equally tortured emotional state. He simmers with rage while mouthing humility to his new masters, and evokes the psychic scars of remorse when seeing his mother again for the first time since the fratricide. There is also a complexity to his relationship with Olga, at first latching on to her only as an instrument of revenge, and then slipping into an attachment without sentiment, yet with a similarly seething passion. This is a character of his time and place, certainly made unsympathetic to us by his actions. Yet Skarsgård, while never mitigating Amleth’s warrior code, still makes of Amleth a sympathetic character, capable of invoking our sympathy by keying into the part of Amleth that is resonant in his plight. It’s a subtle performance in a film that is ferocious, and all the more effective for it.
The spirit world and the material world share the same psychic space here, such that no raven is merely a bird, and a Valkyrie with graven teeth flying Amleth through the air to meet his fate is no more unusual than a seagull floating over the landscape. In a place where dismembered corpses provokes no horror beyond the disrespect inflicted on one’s honor, and where human sacrifice is little more noteworthy than any other kind, the spirit world’s hold is not only credible, but a necessary component in the context that Eggers provides. The mystical is an explanation and a release, not unlike the orgiastic rituals and the proto-cricket played with extreme prejudice. When death is merely a transition from one reality to another, the fleeting nature of life is a given, and not something about which to fret. As in the case of Aurvandil, death, achieved honorably and in one’s prime, a gift.
THE NORTHMAN is a dark tale told with precision and wonder. It is a brutal experience for the viewer, forceful and forthright in its vision, but it is an experience that is more than mere entertainment, because it does more than merely immerse us in an alien culture that is abhorrent by modern standards. It makes it sensible on many levels. We might never want to spend a day, or even an hour, in this place and this time, but there is something about the easy communion with the invisible world that is aspirational. Plus a hero every bit as complex as the one with which Shakespeare gifted us.