Monday, May 1, 2023

Norse Watch: The Northman (2022)

Watched:  04/30/2023
Format:  Amazon Prime
Viewing:  First
Director:  Robert Eggers


So, I just finished listening to the audiobook of the translated Völsunga Saga, and then some pals asked if I'd yet seen The Northman (2022), and while those events were unrelated, they did dovetail.  I hadn't quite gotten to the movie despite liking the prior Eggers film I had seen and a general interest in the content.  I was aware of middling opinions of folks on the street (it's got a 64% audience reaction on RT) - with some folks also camping out in the deep like and dislike camps.  But it was a bit of a critical darling.  So, it seemed it was probably doing *something* of interest, even if it wasn't for me.

The movie does it's best to recreate a world that seems almost impossible in its brutality and viciousness, that believes in fates, and the best fate is to die (valiantly) in battle and be swept off to Valhalla by a Valkyrie.  It's a culture that sees sacking and pillaging as a vocation, and vengeance as a noble right.  And everyone is kind of aware that being a king also means being a target.  Kind of hard to believe these same people a few hundred years later would be living in countries now deemed to be some of the chillest places you can go.

But every scene in the film is cold, wet, or both.  This is the Northern European sea-faring people eking out a living in inhospitable climates kept at bay with stone houses and fires.

I will say - I am glad I had some actual Old Norse poetry under my belt.  The narrative is not pulled from anything in the Saga, I don't believe.  But given what the characters in the poems value and how they see the world deeply informed my understanding of what unspooled on screen - so, good timing, me.  

Eggers and writer Sjón were working to tell an ur-Hamlet (which really only hit me across the face when Nicole Kidman, playing the lead's mother calls him "Amleth" and the particular way she hit the name).  But, yes, it's a story about a prince whose father is killed by his uncle who then marries his mother and claims the kingdom and that prince being told by a phantom to finally deal with his need for vengeance, though it will doom everyone.  And this is not the Volsungs, but this is a different saga and based on an actual person in some way.

In this case, a 13-ish Amleth heads out to sea and allies himself with berserkers, becoming a fierce warrior (in the imposing form of a jacked Alexander Skarsgård).  He has not followed up on his plans for vengeance, but learning his mother and uncle have taken to Iceland after losing their kingdom to an invader (this stuff is like every five pages in the saga) he boards a slave ship headed to Iceland, posing as a slave. 

Oh, and did I mention he's given a vision by a witch in the form of a very spooky ghost-Norn-witch Björk?  Because that shit absolutely happens and I think all movies could use Björk showing up and doling out fates.  Heck, I wish Björk would show up and tell me what to do with myself.

Along the way he meets a fellow slave, this one a Slav in the form of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is clearly a wee bit witchy herself, and unnerving to her captors who can't quite their finger on why this woman sets them off.  

As mentioned, Kidman plays Amleth's mother, Queen Gudrún, and at first I thought "this is some odd casting.  Always happy to see Kidman, but...  why would she take this?."  And then she got her big scene, an equivalent of the Hamlet/ Gertrude scene, but fit for killer-take-all world of kings and chieftans living in stone houses in the shadow of a living volcano.  

Willem Defoe pops up as a Yorick-like character from Amleth's youth, but as much shaman as anything.  Ethan Hawke appears as the father who falls beneath his brother's sword, and Danish actor Claes Bang plays the uncle (very well, indeed, and I would hope this gets him more high profile roles in English-language film, although you may have seen him as Dracula in the Netflix limited series).  

I imagine the film is not for everyone.  This isn't a clear story of heroes and villains.  It's not clear Amleth is just or right, and an eye-for-an-eye truly leaves the whole world blind by the film's end.  He's a "hero" in the pre-20th Century version of the word - a challenged man capable of great and terrible deeds as he deals with fates doled out by gods larger than himself.  He's a near mindless, brutal killer when we catch up with him as an adult, murdering and destroying for want of any better way to work through the rage that defines him.  Life and death are fairly cheap commodities, and the virtues of this world barely align with our own.  The world of the film is cruel and literally barbaric.  

There's certainly CGI, color-grading, etc... employed here, but it's not a movie about the FX.  It relies on performance and story to move it along, and hats off to the DP who managed to light the thing in abysmal conditions and make it work.  So, it's  beautifully shot, well-performed and - if you give it room - moving.  But not in a "the real Northman was the friends we made along the way" sort of way.  It's much more of the hollowed out feeling you may have had at the end of Branagh's Hamlet.  

Anyway - I am not sure I recommend the film broadly, but I'm in the camp of "this is an  interesting movie, I liked it, and I'm glad it exists".  And I would be surprised if I didn't watch it again.

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