From visionary director Robert Eggers comes The Northman, an action-filled epic that follows a young Viking prince on his quest to avenge his father’s murder. Film critic Paul Salt explores the role of authenticity in this 2022 film.
There’s been something of an oversaturation of Viking media lately. In movies, games, TV shows and books there’s a growing obsession with Norse gods, Longships and epic locks. Perhaps it’s clichés about the “barbaric” dark ages that drive this popularity. Resembling a medieval, European Wild West, the Vikings of popular culture ride freely over barren country with a freedom and brutality that still speaks to the primal instincts of audiences. How can one resist fantasising about hopping into a Longship, sailing wherever you please and taking whatever you want with your beefy friends? It’s no wonder that this childish fantasy appeals so heavily to hate groups. The impression is of a very brutal but simple lifestyle.
Into this bloody arena steps unassuming American film director Robert Eggers; riding a wave of indie movie crowd approval having blown cineastes away with The VVItch and The Lighthouse. Known for his near-fanatical devotion to authenticity, Eggers once again pulled out all the stops to ensure his epic revenge tale, an adaptation of the legend of Amleth, was teeming with period detail and authenticity. But if audiences are only here for the vicarious thrill of seeing big men carve out their destiny with cold steel in an environment free of authority or consequence, then why go to the effort of making sure everybody’s hair is braided just right? And what could Robert Eggers see in such a bloody tale?
A Tale of Vengeance & Violence
The story involves the gigantic Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who seeks revenge against his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) for the murder of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and kidnap of his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). As he tracks his traitorous uncle down to a small farmhouse in Iceland, he meets the bewitching Olga (Anya Taylor Joy) who tempers his murderous instincts and encourages him to exact a slower and more subtle form of vengeance… albeit one that still involves dismembering members of the household from time to time.
Eggers’ attention to detail is most evident in his extraordinary sets. The gorgeously shot film takes us to ritualistic caverns deep in the earth, burial chambers ripe for plundering, flame-lit longhouses, an unsuspecting Slav village and even an authentically made longship, made with actual wood and nails that would have been used in 12th Century Scandinavia. Drawing from historical digs like Sutton Hoo, Eggers used period accurate building techniques wherever possible, and even planted Icelandic grass in Ireland a year before filming there. The effect was certainly not lost on the cast who have all enthused about the immersive experience whilst filming, but this absorbing affect is evident in the final film, as every location feels complete and terrifying.
It’s very important that these environments feel authentic. The audience must suspend disbelief and buy into this world on its own terms if they are to fully appreciate the ritualistic farting sequence. Eggers and co-writer Sjón want to interrogate the toxic masculinity that drives not only Amleth’s tale but also the society in which it takes place. We experience the unfortunate lives of ordinary people caught between various conquests; sold into slavery or worse, burned alive either in rituals or simply as a means of disposal. Amleth partakes in the bloody sport of Knatleikr that simply involves incapacitating the opposing team through bludgeoning and then hitting a ball against a post. Warriors partake in animalistic rituals to deny their humanity before battle, freeing themselves of the weaknesses of morality or responsibility. Violence is everywhere and it serves a purpose.
Gender, Power & Agency
We are shown how this society is structured with important men and their vanity at the top, lesser men beneath and women and disabled people at the bottom. Amleth is only able to infiltrate his murderous uncle’s household by pretending to be mad, and therefore harmless. The women are kept separately and given different duties, including forced sex work. We spend a great deal of the film in Fjölnir’s household, the lion’s den for Amleth. Yet it differs very little from what we see of King Aurvandill’s kingdom at the start of the film. Be it a mighty stronghold or a small farm, the patriarchal hierarchy keeps everyone in place, where the strong ones scheme.
Which is not to say the women of the story are powerless or lack agency; they are simply forced to operate in a system where physical strength is prized above all. Even women capable of this brutality can earn their place in this system, as evidenced by the female Viking leader seen briefly in the film (a figure supported by various sources). But most of the female characters must use their cunning to perplex, divert or control the proud and foolish males. Arguably, a seer (played by Bjork) present for only one scene effectively sets out Amleth’s fate and condemns him to it, much to the chagrin of another woman, Olga, who hoped to change his path. Amleth is caught between the women in his life, unable to understand their motivations, as is most evident in his interactions with his mother. The seers prophecy contains a message of hope: that Amleth shall beget a ruler who shall truly bring peace to this land, and she shall be a woman.
The Reality of Fantasy
Amleth, meanwhile, is a figure of pure will and strength, and yet his quest is misguided and based on delusion. Eggers explores the inner life of this world, the fantasies that are completely real to the film’s occupants but in stark contrast to the brutal realities of their environment. Of Viking religion we hear of the glory of dying in battle, of Valhalla, of the tree of ancestors and of fate. All serve to build up the moral righteousness of Amleth’s quest. He is not only doing what feels best to him, but what his culture assures him is the ultimate glory; to die in battle avenging one’s kin. Amleth’s father is a worshiper of Odin, a war god, whilst his uncle is a follower of Freyr, a god of nature. And so we see a conflict between divine violence and the earth, finally enacted at the side of an erupting volcano. There is nothing in Amleth’s world to lead him to doubt his mission and yet he ultimately does, however briefly. There is a longing within the hulking savage, a wish that his life could be about more than hate. The audience are invited to hope that Amleth might change, and that this beautifully rendered savage world might therefore change to.
Surely there is an incongruity to two naked men fighting a holy battle at the side of a volcano with Valkyries waiting in the wings to spirit the victor to Valhalla, and making sure the long ship was nailed together with the right kind of metal. Why is historical accuracy so important to Eggers? Because by crafting a believable world that is authentic in detail, in architecture, in lifestyle and in religion he can explore why these characters act as they do and therefore suggest why modern culture continues to be so obsessed with Vikings and the aesthetics of Norse culture. By grounding the film in reality, it also makes the fantasy more tragic and pathetic, and exposes the violent death-or-glory mind-set for what it is: just a bunch of men farting at each other.
Have you seen The Northman? Have some thoughts on the film, the authenticity, or the historical setting? Let us (and Paul) know on Twitter or Facebook!