The Vikings of Robert Eggers’ beautiful, otherworldly, and savage new film The Northman are not the kind of people you would want to be neighbors with. They settle most disagreements with edged weapons, massacre with abandon, take life advice from mad fools and visions, and don’t seem able to play a simple game without somebody getting their skull cracked open like an egg. Also, when things get rough, they resort to human sacrifice. And the pillaging. Dear God, the pillaging.
In other words, we are a long way from the more fun-loving Scandinavian rogues typified by Kirk Douglas in 1958’s The Vikings.
Instead, we have Alexander Skarsgård. Never the most expressive performer, he is at his best when able to bring a twinkle of ironic mischief, as he did with his cynically bemused soldier in the 2008 miniseries, Generation Kill, or the trollish tech mogul in 2018’s Succession. Here he plays Amleth, a 10th Century Viking prince whose father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) was murdered by his half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Given that backstory, Amleth is a pretty morose sort whose inner depths are rarely hinted at by Skarsgard’s hulking, animalistic take.
Amleth is not the kind of Viking who pillages and then happily celebrates with a tankard of mead and a rousing sing-song. He is more likely to butcher everyone he lays eyes on and then scowl in the dark for a while, plotting how to take revenge on Fjölnir and save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). It’s a savagely committed disposition but a relatively shallow one that becomes less rather than more engaging as the film progresses.
If Amleth’s name and the plot sound familiar, that is because Eggers and his co-author, Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, based it on the Scandinavian legend that inspired Hamlet. Unlike Shakespeare’s angsty protagonist, Amleth knows what he wants to do. In a gripping scene that ends the film’s first section, a traumatized young Amleth (Oscar Novak) rows into the North Sea after seeing Aurvandil’s murder and repeats the metronomic mantra that carries him through the rest of the film: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
While Hamlet can plot in peace while never having to leave Elsinore palace, Amleth the onetime cheerful innocent princeling falls in with a band of marauding Vikings and has to adjust. Once the film catches up with adult Amleth, he is a kind of ravening beast with only a burning cinder where his heart should be. In one of the film’s most indelible sequences, Amleth and his fellow Vikings sack a Slavic village. Amleth cuts down every man in sight while his comrades round up survivors they will force into slavery, and massacre the rest. Herding children they deem unsellable into a hut, they set it on fire.
Inured to such horrors, Amleth only comes alive when he happens to hear some captives are being sold to Fjölnir. He steals away in their boat and finds himself working for his father’s slayer. Having lost Aurvandil’s realm to another king, Fjölnir is now a lowly chieftain in as-yet unsettled Iceland, Gudrún still at his side. Neither recognizes Amleth or understands the danger they have purchased. Amleth starts a guerrilla campaign, killing Fjölnir’s men night after night and building slowly to the titanic confrontation that the epic landscape and portentous dialogue suggests is all but inevitable.
A revenge thriller with an elevated horror heart and an anthropologist’s eye for detail and ritual, The Northman is a witchy and weird piece of work. But despite the layered imagination that went into recreating this ancient world, it is still the most conventional work yet from Eggers, director of old-time Americana oddities The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). The Northman features operatic scope and magical imagery that will be burned into your retinas for quite some time. Eggers blurs the line between fantasy and reality in a way that recalls Macbeth more than Hamlet, using a series of seers (including one played in gloriously sinister fashion by Björk in a black headdress that seems perfect for a “This Mortal Coil” music video) to direct the increasingly frantic Amleth on his trajectory of vengeance.
As often happens, though, tales of men with nothing but revenge on their minds become tiresome. Eggers seems to know this. He packs the film with fantastical scenes that paint in the Viking worldview, from hallucinatory visions of Yggdrasil (the “world tree”, festooned here with corpses) and pale-faced shrieking Valkyries bringing the heroic dead to Valhalla. There are also choreographed funeral ceremonies and fireside dances that turn warriors into ravening berserkers.
The Northman is viciously anti-romantic. The Vikings are depicted throughout as remorseless and reflexive murderers—in one of the film’s most quietly effective scenes, we see a Viking on a longboat casually using his bow to kill a man and boy fishing nearby, chuckling to himself. But Eggers nevertheless shows them as a fully formed civilization. As amoral as they seem, the Vikings see other people as uncivilized brutes, and at one point a man rages about the “Christian savages whose god is a corpse, nailed to a tree.”
But despite all that, the story at the film’s core rarely rises above the mundane. Amleth is depicted as a man so devoid of spirit, he fails to generate interest. Far more riveting are the women. Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy), a Slavic woman sold to Fjölnir who takes a romantic shine to Amleth, has a sorceress’ wiliness about her that fascinates, particularly in comparison to all the brutishness around her. When she realizes Fjölnir is about to rape her, she fends him off by swiping menstrual blood across his face; it’s a simple yet brilliant maneuver that few of the men in the film would understand because it does not involve burying a hatchet in someone.
For her part, Kidman spends most of the film playing Gudrún as a dutiful wife. But she unveils the fallen queen’s stiletto-sharp cunning in a head-spinning scene where the tables are turned on Amleth and he has to consider whether his life has been a lie. If the film dared to follow through on the possibilities posed by that moment, its story might have matched the bravura originality of its mythic spirit and sensual visuals.
With The Northman, Eggers has made great progress towards wresting the public imagination of Vikings closer to their lived historical reality. But doing so without making the film a remotely human story makes that accomplishment a pyrrhic victory.