If, for you, Viking culture stops at the eponymous series or Marvel’s Thor, then you are not ready to embark on The Northman and his tale of revenge borrowed from fantasy. On the other hand, if you like cinema, you have come to the right place.
If some accuse (not necessarily wrongly) Hollywood cinema of having slipped into a certain torpor by cultivating a taste for non-risk with interchangeable films on identical bases (action, humor and fan-service, i.e. the three laws of modern entertainment ), Robert Eggers continues to shake up the cinephile coconut tree by proposing crazy projects. And we would be crazy to miss it. After shaking up genre cinema with The Witch and sending Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe to get lost in a lighthouse in The Lighthouse, the director left for Northern Europe to take an interest in Nordic mythology. After 2h15, the result is final, the Vikings series is to The Northman what Wall-E is to Robocop.
The Northman tells us about the destiny of Prince Amleth who, barely past manhood, witnesses the assassination of his father and the kidnapping of his mother by his uncle, Flölnir. Having made a promise to avenge his own, Amleth becomes a berserker, a Viking warrior fighting with bestial fury. When, two decades later, the opportunity presents itself, he disguises himself as a slave to approach his uncle. With the help of Olga, a young slave who is also a slave, he will set in motion his revenge.
Hamlet the Barbarian of the North
Starting from a fairly classic story that will be reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the director signs a work that mixes family tragedy, heritage and madness, all with the savagery of a Conan the Barbarian. And even if the monstrous stature of Alexander Skarsgård revives in our memories that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, this filiation is more the writings of Robert E. Howard than the film of John Milius so much we find the agility and intelligence of the romantic character which was slightly lacking in its muscular Austrian counterpart.
The Northman is also close to Howard’s stories by taking on the appearance of a tale in which the exploits of men become legends that are told and where beings of flesh rub shoulders with the immaterial. Of course, this fantastic dimension is not so much due to the labors of Hercules as to the Viking folklore which the director and his co-screenwriter Sjon (himself a novel author) have immersed themselves in.
The Northman immerses us completely in Norse mythology by giving great importance to the rites and beliefs in force in the tenth century among the Vikings. By making no distinction between reality and the psyche of its characters, the film gives a tangible aspect to its most fantastic aspects. Magic and the divine exist because their presence is unmistakable in the minds of the protagonists. We see what they see, whatever the nature of these visions.
Far from signing only a banal story of revenge, Eggers gives us a broad picture of a culture with its games, its customs, the transformation of its half-human half-animal warriors… So many materials that enrich the work and that accompany the destiny of the warrior.
god of war
Although he is not ultimately as generous in carnage as one might suppose, The Northman constantly reminds us that Alexander’s build is not there for aesthetics. When the warrior fury is unleashed, the film suddenly takes on a much more horrifying tone with a taste for the bidoche that would please Mel Gibson. The violence is palpable and the cruelty so visual.
The Northman is a violent film, whether by its image or its words, led by a cast inhabited by madness, regardless of the nature of the latter. Robert Eggers offers us a primal cinema where human beasts devour each other in steel and blood.
The director gives birth to an uncompromising work that multiplies phantasmagorical plans to link man and animal, dream and reality, poetry and barbarism. Beauty is unease, cruelty is majesty and the whole thing is enveloped in a flamboyant sound score. The filmmaker had the ambition to make the ultimate Vikings movie. We are not far from thinking that he succeeded.