Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Writer-director Robert Eggers
The young girl at the cinema ticket counter said ‘think Hamlet’ when I indicated we were going to see ‘The Northman’.
I’d go further, saying ‘think Hamlet’ but strip your thoughts of courtly life and replace with a Chieftain’s massive hall-like home surrounded by village dwellings; then take out the Shakespearean prose and eloquent Shakespearean actors and replace with long-haired, guttural Conan the Barbarian-types.
Please note that is not a put down. ‘The Northman’ is epic. It contains its own brutal poetry of pagan rites and cultural gestures, and a realism that was probably close to ‘how it was’ in 900 AD, where you either killed or were killed, were a slave or a chieftain, and murder and rape were a way of life.
Have we changed much? Well, our technology has definitely evolved.
Alexander Skarsgård is brilliant as Amleth (think Hamlet), a little boy/prince who witnesses the bloody murder of his father, the kidnapping of his mother (Nicole Kidman), and the brutal, blood-drenched destruction of his father’s tribal kingdom. He escapes and swears revenge – becoming part of a ‘Russ’ tribe of marauders and its most brutal protégé.
When he hears that his his father’s murderer – his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) – is now living as a chieftain in Iceland he stows-away as a slave on a trader vessel and successfully infiltrates the tribe. On that voyage he meets the mystical Slav, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) , an Ophelia who is a mystic rather than a deranged young woman. Like the traditional Ophelia however, Olga knows her herbs, critically those that can induce men to slash their own throats along with those that heal and succour.
‘The Northman’ is an epic insight into the Viking culture, their gods, their myths, and the very fine line between mysticism and life at its most brutal.
The clever conceit of telling the tale through another that is so familiar to us makes it all the more fascinating. In fact, ‘The Northman’ is based on a Norse legend set in the early 900s, the same source material on which Shakespeare based ‘Hamlet’.
Disclaimer: ‘The Northman’ contains scenes of violence and brutality.