Vikings in pop culture have gotten a bit too cozy as of late. Instead of depicting them as the bloodthirsty, pirating, raping warriors that they were, conquering every new land and leaving a bloody trail behind them, we’ve gotten a defanged version of the terrifying conquerors. While recent shows like Vikings and Vikings: Valhalla show a version of Vikings with a heart of gold (and not a slave in sight) and games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla romanticize the wandering journey and noble soul of a Viking, Robert Eggers’ The Northman does neither. I’m not saying the game and those shows don’t have their own merit, but The Northman is not trying to curry your favor for its berserker protagonist.
Based on the legend of Amleth which inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet (something you quickly notice once you watch the movie) the only thing familiar about the world of The Northman is its plot. Indeed, from hauntings to Yorick’s skull, the film doesn’t deviate too much from the soul of the story we’ve gotten to know so well. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a Viking prince on the run after witnessing the murder of his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) by the hand of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He escapes as a child, vowing to return for vengeance and to save his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
Years on his own, plagued and infected by hate and vengeance have turned Amleth into nothing short of a beast. It isn’t until, during one of his blood-soaked raids, where he meets a Seeress (Björk) that he is righted once more. Sailing to Iceland disguised as a slave alongside a Slavic witch named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth schemes and seethes. Unlike Eggers’ previous features, there’s very little that is surprising or unexpected when it comes to The Northman. Those who label it as horror are fundamentally misunderstanding what horror is. This is a revenge story, closer in relation to The Count of Monte Cristo than The Witch or The Lighthouse.
Instead, Eggers proves that the connecting thread in his films is a distinct and enchanting blend of the bizarre and arcane with dashes of folkloric magic and indulgence in fantasy. Instead of dabbling in magical realism and making us question what is real and what is superstition, it is all real for these characters. Just as Thomasin can live deliciously, so too can Amleth become beast-like and wield magical blades.
It’s inspiring to see that stories like this can still exist. Ones that aren’t afraid to push the boundaries between genres, because while dubbing The Northman as a historical epic isn’t necessarily wrong, it would be inaccurate. Along with its violence and costuming and dead languages, there is also a surprising amount of humor, romance, and fantasy. From burping and farting to pretending to be literal wolves, the scenes that brought me surprising mirth were funny because of their unflinching intensity. The situation, as a viewer from 2022, is entirely comical, but for the characters, it’s real. That’s not to say that you aren’t meant to laugh at some of those scenes, they’re meant to be ridiculous.
On the same note, the scenes between Amleth and Taylor-Joy’s Olga are surprisingly tender. Wrapped within this story of Hamlet could have been a burgeoning story of a young Lord and Lady Macbeth. Olga is equal parts ethereal and vicious, far from a shrinking violet, her alliance and connection to Amleth ground his character in something real. She’s not there to be beautiful Ophelia and die, she is his partner, his savior, and his purpose when he becomes rudderless. It’s touching, to see the man who was once nothing but muscle and loud screaming and grunting noises turn into open himself up to a Slavic witch and speak of the future.
Eggers blends these genres and tones together effortlessly, in a way that seems so simple but is difficult to accomplish. In The Northman, Robert Eggers sheds the title of a horror director. He shows just how far his range can lead him, and it is exciting to see him lean into that. Fueling his stories with healthy doses of fantasy only serves to prove this point and adds an extra layer of excitement when I think of what fantastical story he’ll conquer next.
The Northman is now out in theaters.