One of the most uncanny aspects of the “Assassin’s Creed” series of history-themed video games, at least in recent years, is how profoundly familiar they make the past. Characters—from Viking princes to Athenian philosophers—routinely come off as modern men and women playing dress-up, displaying a smug contempt for traditional religiosity and a (historically anomalous) commitment to gender parity. And what gets lost in translation is the genuine strangeness of historical civilizations long gone, the possibility of glimpsing an altogether alien way of “Being-in-the-world” that possesses its own distinctive rationality.
Robert Eggers’s brutal, brilliant film “The Northman” does not suffer from this vice. It is the most thoroughgoing vision of pagan civilization I’ve ever seen onscreen, a glimpse back in time to the glories and horrors of an uncompromising social order.
Based on the old folktale that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “The Northman” follows Scandinavian prince Amleth (a musclebound Alexander Skarsgård) and his quest for revenge against his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father and stole his queen (a delightfully venomous Nicole Kidman). Along the way Amleth falls in with the beautiful Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who helps him lay the groundwork for his vengeance, and finds himself visited in visions by witches and gods and Valkyries. It’s a familiar story—everyone knows from the start where this tale is going to end up—but in Eggers’s capable hands, it becomes something writhing and incandescent and alive.
Eggers’s previous films—“The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”—were both characterized by their totalizing commitment to worldbuilding: “The Witch” depicted the metaphysically “enchanted” world of Puritan New England in unsettling detail, while “The Lighthouse” stressed the eeriness and danger of the sea. Altogether absent was any sense of ironic detachment or modern self-awareness. And this is precisely the element that makes “The Northman” so cinematically compelling: its utter unwillingness to “break worldview” and sand off the rough edges of its pagan sensibility.
Even if they don’t go as far as the “Assassin’s Creed” titles in modernizing their characters, most historical dramas (past and present) have a strong tendency to retroactively “Christianize” stories set in classical times. By this, I mean that they tend to feature heroes that exemplify what even today’s secular age still considers to be virtues: self-examination, compassion for the weak, and so on. And of course, the theme of escaping fate through free will is all over modern cinema of all genres.
None of this anachronism leaks into “The Northman”: Amleth is a kind of “hero” within the context of his culture, but he is not one whose morality maps onto ours. While he doesn’t participate directly, he is comfortable standing idly by while conquered villagers are burned to death in a flaming longhouse, and he is willing to kill women and children who happen to attack him. He seems to have virtually no inner life worth reflecting on, and he experiences every moment of life as structured by the unavoidable hand of fate.
Is this jarring? Of course it is. But this is also history in its unadulterated form, a history that exposes the contingency of the civic values we so often take for granted. It doesn’t sit easy because it shouldn’t sit easy. Indeed, I came away from “The Northman” struck anew by the radicalism of the Christian claim that every human life has intrinsic value: it’s one thing to read about the savagery of societies lacking such a principle, but quite another to see it depicted onscreen.
And of course, in the midst of this darkness “The Northman” is also a grimly exhilarating experience, from its blood-soaked battlefields and bouts with undead warriors in hidden tombs to its final showstopping duel. In less capable hands, some of the film’s most memorable moments—like Amleth and his fellow warriors howling like wolves to pump themselves up into a berserker rage before battle—might’ve come off as pure camp, but with Eggers behind the camera, they’re electrifying. When “The Northman” kicks into high gear, it feels like a testosterone shot straight to the chest.
There’s a lot more I could say, particularly about the amazing cinematography that suffuses this film—from stormy seas to lava-spewing craters—but words really don’t do it justice. This is a movie that demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible, with the loudest sound system. Perhaps “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” didn’t strike your fancy (maybe they were too weird, or too slow-burning) but “The Northman” is far zippier and far more accessible.
At the end of the day, “The Northman” is quite simply the best swords-and-sandals flick since “Gladiator.” Highly recommended.