Category Archives: Historical

Movie Review: “The Northman”

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.

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Posted by on April 24, 2022 in Historical


Movie Review: “Emma.”

When I first heard about director Autumn de Wilde’s new take on Jane Austen’s classic novel, I’ll admit that I had a few questions. Chief among them: why even attempt to unthrone the near-perfect 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version? But I guess there’s always room for a fresh take—after all, we’ve been through three different versions of Spider-Man in that same timespan.

Since “Emma” is a classic, I won’t bother rehashing the plot in great detail. We have rich, sophisticated young Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy, best known for her starring turn in “The Witch”) who has a bad habit of making matches between her friends. We have family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a man of great virtue who treats Emma like a little sister. And we have the simple Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a good-hearted girl that Emma’s just dying to pair up with handsome vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Many misunderstandings and longing gazes follow.

Traditionally, beyond the lush period costuming and sheer opulence on display, “Emma” plays out as essentially a story of moral transformation—of Emma’s maturation from a thoughtless socialite into a woman of real grace and virtue. De Wilde’s version, however, takes a different approach, preferring to treat the story as a more straightforward romcom. And that, in turn, gives rise to a film that has a rather different thematic undercurrent than one might expect.

On the older approach, the rarified world of Austen’s novels is a place where small gestures and nuances of etiquette have great meaning. (Overly frank or straightforward speech, in many ways, is a breach of that mannerliness: it fails to meet the standards of respectful communication that honor the other person.) That is to say, the dense thicket of customs and practices that feels alien and “Victorian” to the contemporary viewer is actually something that, to individuals at the time, would have been pregnant with significance.

De Wilde’s film largely avoids this dimension. The mores of the time are played for laughs throughout, and numerous characters—in particular Mr. Elton—are stretched into extreme versions of themselves for comedic purposes. Indeed, Mr. Knightley himself displays a certain contempt for formality, tearing off his stiff outer garments at every opportunity and lounging about on his luxurious rugs. (And his hair resembles nothing so much as Owen Wilson’s tousled mop in “Wedding Crashers.”

This, in turn, leads to a curious flattening of Austen’s moral landscape. The “casualization” of Mr. Knightley means that several of his key encounters with Emma—which often involve his upbraiding her for her thoughtlessness or vanity—reflect poorly on him, as if he’s speaking from a high horse he hasn’t merited. (Part of this is due to the fact Taylor-Joy and Flynn aren’t really that far apart in age, unlike Austen’s characters.) In essence, it’s harder to see Mr. Knightley as an exemplar of virtue than it was in the 1996 adaptation.

A similar issue arises in the case of Frank Churchill—a rich caddish fellow that Emma briefly pursues. In de Wilde’s adaptation, Churchill (Callum Turner) comes off as guileless and a bit of a dullard, incapable of intentionally misleading anyone. But in the 1996 film (and the novel), Churchill was far more winsome, a man capable of donning the trappings of virtue—of mannerliness and charm—but ultimately lacking any real moral fiber. This sets up the novel’s critical contrast, between Churchill’s superficial appeal (think Mr. Wickham from “Pride and Prejudice”) and Knightley’s deep maturity (a la Mr. Darcy). That simply isn’t in play here.

So too, the approach to love that underpins the story is reconfigured here. The novel centers on agape, unconditional love that properly informs all human interactions: Emma begins in selfishness and progresses toward selflessness, demonstrating in the end a real capacity to humble herself and seek the best interest of others. The new film focuses on eros, romantic or sexual desire: here, we’re treated to perhaps the sexiest dance sequence in any Austen adaptation, and Emma’s personal growth is scarcely remarked upon.

All of that to say: this is an “Emma” for the modern age, one that retains the formal trappings (unlike 1995’s “Clueless”) but largely diverges from Austen’s philosophical sensibilities.

To be clear, there’s still a lot to like in the 2020 adaptation. Taylor-Joy, in particular, is perfectly cast: there’s a real edge to her that Paltrow never displayed, a slight inhumanity reflected in the faint smirk that plays across Taylor-Joy’s lips for most of the movie. Emma doesn’t start out, in other words, as a bumbling but well-intentioned matchmaker—she’s someone who takes pleasure in manipulating other people, a habit antithetical to the development of real virtue. The pacing and cinematography of de Wilde’s film is also head-and-shoulders above other Austen adaptations, many of which tend to start dragging around the 90-minute mark.

So, suffice it to say that “Emma.” is probably worth an outing to the movies, if this is your kind of film. It’s well-crafted, elegant, and propelled by a great central performance. Hopefully, though, it does prompt some reflection—about exactly what Austen was trying to communicate through her work, whether she succeeded, and whether there’s anything in those messages that ought to be reclaimed and revived. I tend to think there is.

(Addendum: Full disclosure, I didn’t actually enjoy—or think about—Austen’s works very much for most of my life. I found them tedious and preoccupied with formalities I had little interest in contemplating. If you find yourself in that position, I strongly recommend reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and then contrasting the themes on offer with those in Austen’s novels. It’s a striking difference.)

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Posted by on February 29, 2020 in Historical

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