By Peter Konieczny
Robert Eggers’ take on the Norse tale of Prince Amleth may offer movie-goers some impressive visuals and historically-accurate details, but ultimately it is another bleak and bloody view of the Vikings.
The Northman comes with an impressive cast, including Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy, and a big budget, with production costs estimated to be as high as $90 million US. It allows director Robert Eggers to craft a dark and violent film, sometimes delving into the horror genre that he has done well with his previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Here he uses the medieval story of Amleth as the basis for this epic, in which the young prince watches as his father is murdered by his uncle, thus putting him on the path of revenge. It’s a tale that is more famously retold in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, but Eggers’ version turns everyone into one-dimensional brutes and sword fodder. The actual medieval version of this story is less violent and more complex.
After the murder of his father, the young Amleth flees by boat, vowing to avenge his father, kill his uncle, and save his mother (Nicole Kidman). The tale then moves forward several years to where the boy has grown into a man (Alexander Skarsgård) and is now part of a band of raiders who are terrorizing the lands of Rus.
In what has become the major trope for films and series about Vikings, the raiders are presented as berserker beasts who slaughter with ease and are gleeful towards random killing. They capture a village, taking the surviving men and women as slaves, but also murdering all the children – it’s that bleak. It is then that Amleth learns that his uncle and mother are now living in Iceland, so he gets himself on a ship as a slave so that he can be taken to the far-off island.
Amleth’s plan, much of which gets told to him by seers and magic, is to become one of his uncle’s slaves, and then use his insider position to cause havoc and destruction before exacting a final revenge. It is here the movie slows down in order to stretch it into an overly long 2 hours 17 minutes. Since we are foretold where the film will go, you want the action to move along, but have to endure several pointless scenes.
Eggers made efforts to present a lot of historically-accurate details – the clothes, houses and daily life all seem to be well researched, and some scenes are based on descriptions given in Icelandic sagas – for example, Amleth descending into a burial mound and fighting an undead corpse comes from Grettir’s Saga. Another scene involves Amleth taking part in a game called Knattleikr, which was played in medieval Iceland.
However, The Northman also makes sure that everything is dark and humourless as possible, with most of the film taking place at night. The Norse culture you see here is basically very angry men who frequently have to strip down to their loincloths and growl at each other. Characters rage and kill each other like animals, then suddenly find some reason or code to stop and wait for another time to begin again.
Eggers does a good job of showing off the Icelandic landscape (although much of it was actually filled in Ireland) and there are a lot of good visuals here. It seems that film critics quite like The Northman, but the medievalist in me and my more casual filmgoer side found this to be a predictable story of uninteresting characters finding themselves covered in blood and dirt.