The Northman Subverted my Expectations in a GOOD Way!

Let me start by saying I am a BIG TIME history and mythology nerd who is weirdly obsessed with my genealogy. The bulk of my ancestry is Germanic and Scandinavian from my father’s side and I’ve always felt a huge call to the ancient ones. I became super rapt by the history of the Vikings from the moment I became aware of them. I was pretty obsessed with Norse mythology in junior high and I’ve read most of the literature I could find about them from the Eddas and the Sagas to scholarly pursuits.

At the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark

My husband is also a descendant and a scholar interested in the deep past. We spent our honeymoon in the Baltic (Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden) going to the Viking Ship museum in Roskilde and the Viking Museum in Stockholm.

Thus, we have spent a lot of time being disappointed by film. Movies about Viking culture have always let me down. They tend to do one of two things: a) too much focus on the raiding aspect replete with gratuitous violence to the point of being downright comical, or b) pander to a modern audience so much that the truth of the time is utterly lost in translation. I was a fan of the History Channel’s first season of Vikings, but by Season 2, it began catering to the audience and it was so rife with cultural inaccuracies by Season 3, I couldn’t help but eye-roll and check out.

So going to see Robert Eggers’ film The Northman was a pleasant surprise!

I saw Eggers’ film The Lighthouse by A24 last year and loved it! Like a deranged, sea shanty film noire, The Lighthouse kept me engaged and fascinated without feeling ridiculous, preachy or overly art house. It was bizarre, it was unique, it was good! When I saw his name as director for a new film about Norse culture, I thought, “What the Hell, let’s give it a go.” I went in expecting to be entertained yet inevitably disappointed but was instead astounded.

Based on Vita Amlethi by Saxo Grammaticus, the script comes from the same source material Shakespeare used to write Hamlet (Amleth = Hamlet). It’s classic Norse narrative: blood feuds, honor and Amor Fati, the love of one’s fate. It follows Amleth, who is the son of a Norse king slain by his brother for the throne, but that’s about as much as this interpretation and Hamlet have in common. Driven by revenge, Amleth embarks on pursuit of his uncle in an almost guerrilla warfare fashion, playing with his enemies’ minds as much as physically attacking them.

Eggers did a REALLY good job of immersing the audience in a world completely alien to our own. There’s no effort to “explain” any of it to a contemporary audience. When the Otherworld world appears, it is seamless, natural. A fact. The Gods are. The Norns are. Fate is sacred. The historical authenticity was impressive. Eggers must have had MANY scholars advise him for costuming, the ships, the dynamic of the society, but what MOST impressed me was how he spent a lot of time setting the audience up to be in that environment.

Björk makes an appearance as a Norn

For the Norse, mercy was as foreign as walking on the moon. Viking culture was hyper focused on a good death. If one did not prove oneself to the Gods, you could be barred from entering Valhalla. Justice also took on a completely different form in their world. Vengeance. Revenge was a sacred duty which, if not performed, was considered disgraceful. For Amleth, it’s not just personal, it is the only way he can enter heaven, and when one of the Norns appears to him (portrayed by Björk, kick ass!) to reveal his Fate, there is no question nor desire to deviate from that which has been decreed. This is where Eggers did a superb job of getting a modern audience out of it’s own way. He so heavily plunges the viewer into the culture as it was then, that you withhold judgments you might have in your own time…or at least that was the experience I had.

The film showed us the way “religion” was felt and lived, it showed how warriors put themselves into the right psyche for war, it showed the mystery of witchcraft and the absolutely creepy (and accurate) lengths sorcerers would go to in order to speak to the Gods, it showed how brutal raids were and the horror of slavery.

Too many present-day interpretations of Norse civilization gloss over the slavery aspect which was a very large part of their society. Certainly there were very cool things about Viking culture as in there was more of a kinship bond between lords and their warriors versus a vassal state, and “free” women could hold a lot of privilege that their counterparts elsewhere in the world did not i.e. owning property, participating in governance, going into battle. But if you were a slave, your life was awful and this film makes no attempts to ignore how horrid those conditions were for the slaves.

I liked it because the film made no apologies. It portrays things as they actually were, or at least as much as we know. Observing this world through the lens of our 21st Century mentality, these people seem weird, savage, vicious, primitive and out of touch with reality, but they would say the same thing about us. At times I found myself wishing Amleth would just give up his “fate” and go live happily ever after, like I’ve been conditioned to believe life is supposed to work, but as I watched more, I realized not only would it be shameful to run from his fate, but he wouldn’t even want to. Our version of happily ever after would have been abhorrent to these people!

Viking Age specialists advised Eggers for accuracy, getting even tiny details like teeth tattooing in the film.

In the end, I had an almost surreal experience with this film. It was indeed very entertaining, but that was almost a side-note to the story. It brought me into a space I rarely occupy in film: being brought into the narrative via suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude.

The Northman is a long movie. 2 hours and 40 mins to be exact, but I never at any point felt bored. It didn’t waste my time. Other films I’ve seen recently like Dune and The Green Knight did. Granted, I enjoyed both of those films, but the pacing just felt like too much frosting and not enough cake. If anything, when The Northman ended I was wishing for more.

It’s definitely not going to be for everyone. There is a lot of violence but never in a gratuitous, stupid way. There is also some sexual content and the appearance of the Otherworldly characters could be jarring for those not familiar with Norse mythology, but I loved it. It’s the best film I’ve seen all year and definitely the best film I’ve ever seen about Vikings.

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