As lead actor and co-producer of The Northman, Alexander Skarsgard gets to dig deep into his Viking roots. Growing up in Sweden, he was surrounded by Viking runes and Norse lore. The Northman may be a little intense for some as it attempts to depict the often brutal truth of the Viking Age. That era lasted from around 793 AD until roughly 1066 AD, so you’d certainly expect primitive conditions. You’ll get those plus plenty of dirt and blood. True to his role as a Viking warrior, Skarsgard is liberally covered in both in most scenes.
The Northman takes place in 914 AD which coincides with Viking tribes establishing their kingdoms by way of fierce battles and conquests. Skarsgard plays Prince Amleth, the revenge-seeking son of the murdered King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). It’s all very Shakespearean, and it’s said that Shakespeare based his character Hamlet on the legend of Amleth. As you might expect, elements of tragedy permeate the film.
Amleth is a child (Oscar Novak) when the narrative begins, waiting with his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) for his father to return from battle. Aurvandil’s return marks the preparation for Amleth to assume his rightful place in the family’s royal heritage. Norse mythology and imagery fill the film, both thematically and visually. The beginning of Amleth’s preparation involves a “journey”, led by a shaman, into a visionary world – helped along by some kind of hallucinatory concoction – that shows the boy his fate. The Vikings believed they lived in an enchanted world in which their lives were predetermined by fate.
Amleth doesn’t get to finish his training because shortly after the introductory ceremony, his father is ambushed and murdered by his bastard half-brother Fjoinir, played by Danish actor Claes Bang, who kidnaps Gudrun and seizes the kingdom. The boy manages to escape but is thrust into an unfamiliar world of survival of the fittest.
Between sections of the plot, Runic writing appears on a dark screen giving a name to the next part. Subtitles give the English text. Following the harrowing scene of the boy’s escape, you see only the text “Many Years Later”. This seems to me to be a fault in the film. You never find out how the boy lives to become the man. As an adult, Amleth is physically strong and unusually adept in battle. He is driven by his pledge to himself, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjoinir.” He fully expects to attain the end his father was denied – to die heroically in battle and be escorted by the Valkerie to Valhalla to spend eternity in the presence of Odin. It helps if you know a little bit about Norse mythology going into the film.
Amleth , at this point, lives in the Land of the Ros, who, like most Viking tribes, must constantly fight to keep their land and kingdom. In one of these battles, they seem to be losing, so Amleth escapes and boards a ship filled with slaves captured in the battle. It’s bound for Iceland where Fjoinir has fled after being routed by King Harald of Norway. Amleth begins to form a plan to fulfill his destiny and conveniently notices a beautiful, strong woman, Olga of the Birch Forest, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Both know they must escape slavery to fulfill their destinies. I’ll leave it to you to discover how they accomplish this.
The Northman is filled with betrayal and treachery as well as valor and honor. Although the narrative wanders a bit, the star-filled cast keeps the audiences’ attention well enough. If you blink, you may miss Willem Dafoe as Heimer the Fool. His role may be brief, but he skillfully makes an impression.
Visually, the film seems accurate to the time, maybe a little too accurate. It’s often brutal and grim. It’s an extremely dark film, and I longed for just a little more of the scant light offered. It felt like kind of an ordeal. At times, some of the characters speak in what I assume is Old Norse, so subtitles are necessary. Unfortunately, in the theater used for the press screening, only the first line of the subtitle was visible. I don’t know if that was a fault in the film or just the theater screen. I’m guessing that the screen was just too small. Nevertheless, I feel I missed some crucial dialog, so I suggest you see it on a larger screen.
Vikings are popular in film and television these days, and if you’re a fan, you’ll like this film. That said, The Northman may be a little harsh for some. It’s definitely an Alpha male spectacle, with a few hints that female warriors will emerge in time. If you’re sensitive to blood, entrails, and body parts flying around everywhere, this film may not be for you. But if you enjoy historical accuracy interwoven with visionary fantasy, you will enjoy The Northman. – Jo Anne Hyde