In this edition of Marginalia, a critical look at a film that’s not quite an action epic nor a thoughtful meditation on myth, though it clearly hopes to be both.
The Northman (2022)
There’s a respectable pedigree to Robert Eggers’ film The Northman, which ascends through Shakespeare’s Hamlet to arrive at the Scandinavian tale of Amleth. By the time this latest iteration of the old story has arrived on our screens, it bears only a passing similarity to its forebears. Where Amleth of the tale is cunning and complex, The Northman gives us a broody and bulky hero portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård, who offers a beefy chest and empty eyes, but very little interiority.
The Northman dispenses with any bildungsroman filler, skipping over Amleth’s journey from son of a murdered king to berserker warrior, confident that we as viewers have seen enough movies to get the gist of this transition. Grown-up Amleth is dragged towards the only path his character can take – revenge on the uncle who killed his father (played by Ethan Hawke) and who captured his mother (Nicole Kidman). From here, The Northman sets off to show us what a Robert Eggers’ version of Gladiator might look like.
It occurred to me as I watched The Northman that it isn’t a problem that Gladiator (or even 1999’s The 13th Warrior) got to this material first – after all, tragedy doesn’t depend on hiding that all will end badly, it relies on our foreknowledge of that fact. It is, however, a problem that those earlier films did it better. By the end of The Northman’s overly generous runtime, I knew that I had no reason to ever return to this movie. If I want to watch a Robert Eggers film, I’ll happily rewatch his wonderfully unique The Witch or his brilliantly baffling The Lighthouse. If I want an action epic, I’ll turn to one of the aforementioned blockbusters.
Writer Andy Miller once criticised the genre of magical realism for being “neither realistic nor magical”. I felt similarly about The Northman, which is occasionally like a Robert Eggers film and other times a little like a blockbuster, but it is never fully either – and it never synthesises them into a new or interesting whole. At times, the film seems interested in mythos and metaphor, especially their role in our real lives. But the film never goes beyond using myth as a tool for the plot, or examining metaphor beyond the trippy visuals it can provide.
In this way, The Northman fails to live up to the kind of art Eggers creates in his more successful – and far more interesting – previous features. But the film also falls short as an action blockbuster. The first battle scene takes place when Amleth has grown up and his band of unmerry men raid a village. The sequence opens with the adrenal-gland-pumping moment of Amleth catching a spear in mid-air before launching it back at his opponent, a man on the wooden wall of the village. In a one-shot, the Vikings throw off their tunics, rise bare-chested and roaring, and run full-pelt at the village, undeterred by the arrows and spears flying at them. So far, so fulfilling of caveman fantasies of war. But this lasts only for about thirty seconds.
We then get another one-shot, which tracks a horizontal plane, well stabilised as Amleth marches through the village, efficiently slaughtering innocents. But there is no kinetic energy to the camera, which comes off as surprisingly incurious about what it is shooting. The result is a sequence that flows in a way that battle does not, and that feels less like the chopping, punching, cutting, fighting of life and death and more like a choreographed dance. This is in part because of how smooth it all is, and in part because of the very nature of a one-shot, the extensive planning and co-ordination of which few audience members today can be ignorant. Ultimately, the scene is too elegant to be exciting.
But the problem is deeper than one of adrenalin. So much of the action is shot in this passive way, frequently in long takes that seem to say, “Here’s some stuff happening, just look at it.” Half of the final fight sequence between Amleth and his uncle is presented in one of these one-shots, the camera never shaking or faltering or rushing to catch up. This leaves the action feeling weightless, the way early CGI used to feel too light, as if not truly connecting with the world around. People here wield swords that don’t appear heavy, receive blows to shields that seem light and effete, and their movements, rather than desperate attempts to stay alive and brutal efforts to kill the other, feel like the pivot and twirls of a dance. And this weightlessness ultimately translates to a lack of moral gravity. It’s hard to care too much about the outcome of a fight that doesn’t feel authentic.
Now, let me complicate the picture, because as I’ve spent time considering The Northman, I’ve come to believe that this flatness in the action and its resulting dullness is precisely Eggers’ point. In a profile for The Independent, the director said that he had one question at the core of his approach to the action in The Northman: “How do I make the violence thrilling and entertaining without glorifying it?” Let’s return to that first battle scene for an answer.
Whose side are we supposed to be on? We have no idea going into this scene who Amleth’s men are fighting or why, so they might be simple villagers about to be raided and raped (which is the case) or they might be a clan who have previously attacked Amleth’s men and so brought this pain on themselves. We have no idea whether this attack is in any way justified, but we know Amleth is our protagonist, so the vast majority of audiences will assume they should be on his side for this scene.
Why, then, are we shown in the very next scene a sequence of cold, unflinching brutality that depicts the arbitrary murder, enslavement, and rape of the surviving villagers? Why have us root for the bloodshed and then try to shake us morally afterwards? I believe Eggers does this to make a meta-point about the desensitisation that comes of watching action films. This is his attempt to de-glorify cinematic violence.
In Inferno, Dante has Ulysses say: “You were not made to live like brute beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” It is this dichotomy between brute beasts and virtuous humans that Eggers is gesturing at when Willem Defoe’s mystic asks Amleth whether he is a dog or a man; it’s why Amleth is also known as “Bear-Wolf”; it’s why a later shaman tells him he is “still a beast cloaked in man flesh”. This idea is not there simply to underline Skarsgård’s impressive bulk, a feat of biological engineering that has given the actor the kind of superhero physique usually reserved for Marvel movies. Eggers wants to remind us that violence ought to be beneath us.
The Northman is an action film that looks down on action films. This is its most interesting aspect, but also the reason it doesn’t demand repeat viewings. The point is made, but at the expense of the excitement and fun that, whether Eggers approves or not, keep us coming back to action films. Reducing both arthouse cinema and blockbusters to their essential elements, it might be said that at bottom, if they do nothing else, an arthouse film should be interesting and a blockbuster should be fun. The Northman – dour, self-serious, and more than a little condescending – ends up only a little more interesting than it is fun.
Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe