Bjork plays Slavic witch in pagan Hamlet retelling
Just to get it out of the way: the characters of The Northman live in a metaphysically porous borderland where tenth-century reality and pagan mythology tend to blend into each other.
A basic presupposition in all films of American director Robert Eggers has hitherto been that the whispers of ancient tales of folklore are all true: the namesake witch in The Witch (2015) really did live in the woods; the wickies of The Lighthouse (2019) really did live a Protean sailors’ myth.
But The Northman doesn’t confine itself to one isolated farmstead or island. It’s a vision of a thoroughly pagan world, in which few doubt the existence of such otherworldly powers; a world steeped in a completely different way of understanding nature and each other.
For some, this spiritually alien perspective can be off-putting: there’s something like half a dozen pagan ritual scenes in which people dance naked around fires, sometimes sacrificing people and livestock.
Gods, demons, and the undead all live together in The Northman’s world, which invites the viewer in under precisely the same condition which Eggers posits in his earlier films: his worlds function under the assumption that the line between the real and the mystical is blurred.
In other words, just like the pagans of the tenth century, you’ve got to accept that these otherworldly forces are all real. This makes the plot - which’ll be familiar to many - operate under a whole different set of rules.
Firstly, it’s a retelling of Hamlet, in which the namesake prince seeks revenge on his uncle, who killed his father, usurped his throne, and stole away his mother. There’s a lot less blood and ritual sacrifice in Shakespeare's play, of course, but it’s nevertheless a familiar plot - even for viewers who do not explicitly know it. Hamlet has inspired more theatre and cinema than perhaps any other piece of fiction: think of 1994’s The Lion King, in which Simba’s uncle murders his father, takes his place as king, and sends the young cub into exile.
Years later, Amleth, in exile like his Shakespearean counterpart, is a muscly husk of a man. He’s a violent viking raider who sees no qualms in propagating the same kind of violence once done onto him, and is fuelled by the burning desire to avenge his father, kill his uncle Fjolnir, and save his mother.
He eventually learns that Fjolnir now resides in Iceland and takes it upon himself to travel there to seek vengeance - but not before receiving an ominous prophecy from a Slavic witch played by Bjork.
Secondly, and crucially, the film is thus also deeply inspired by the Sagas of the Icelanders. Much of the action takes place in Iceland on a farmstead clinging onto the volcanic landscape – the archetypical stage for many of the sagas of old. People back then would get embroiled in familial feuds which would last for decades – or sometimes so long that people forgot why their families started warring in the first place.
Deep, festering hate which people had for others was an overarching theme. Their austere lives in medieval Iceland were marked by the hardship of the land and the intense drama that unfolded between the various clans that lived in the valleys and fjords along the coast. This kind of story is what makes up much of the rest of The Northman’s dramatic DNA.
Amleth, in this frame, is less a brutish and muscly main character with impeccable abs and more a monster. His flight from his home makes him into a beast (literally a berserkr), and many of the characters which encounter him don’t see any humanity in him at all. His whole life has been absorbed by this kind of Icelandic saga hate at the expense of everything else.
Many reviews try to come to grips with the film’s spiritual and thematic obliqueness, often mentioning how obscure and downright strange some of its sequences are. The New York Times review, for example, praises the Hollywood-esque romance between Skarsgard and Taylor-Joy as a welcome return to cinematic familiarity ‘amid the Nordic mumbo-jumbo.’
I’d veer in the opposite direction. It’s a welcome relief to see something truly out there and still steeped in world literature, for the central romance between Olga of the Birch Forest and Amleth, if anything, reeks of studio interference.
We’ve already had enough hokey Hollywood films this year (see: some of the films which I’ve reviewed in the past weeks), and as such movies which dare to delve into the strangeness of older, more primal stories are a refreshing change.
It can feel miraculous that Eggers’s films and vision get greenlit at all when they have to compete with Hollywood's movie-making machine.
Recommendations should still come with a fair warning, though: it’s long, intense, gory, strange, and downright scary in its indulging of the pagan perspective of the world.
But add to this his directorial chops and fascinated eye for occult visuals and you get a deliriously primal vision of an Old Norse saga-flavoured Hamlet.
Like his previous films, The Northman probes the thin veneer between rationality and the truly bizarre and begs the question of what to do when they clash - and, more importantly, why more films like this aren’t being made.