‘The Northman’ Is A Glorious Goth Fantasy, Like Hamlet By Way Of Danzig

It finally dawned on me about halfway through The Northman that the name of the protagonist, “Amleth,” an 8th century Viking prince on a mission to avenge the death of his father at the hands of his uncle, might be a play on “Hamlet.” Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake. Maybe that’s why I can rarely fully appreciate Shakespeare. When I’m watching a Shakespeare adaptation, I usually find myself thinking “Why couldn’t they have done a little more, you know, adapting?”

And yet here was The Northman, doing what I’d always wanted a Shakespeare adaptation to do: make me feel the way people who love Shakespeare must feel when they watch it, the way Shakespeare’s patrons must’ve felt in his own time. The Northman is like that, this grand goth spectacle with a story that moves like music and characters who are as much fable and myth as they are people, recognizably human but slightly unknowable and awe-inspiring, like old testament gods.

Admittedly, that makes The Northman sound a lot more cerebral than it actually is. Make no mistake, director Robert Eggers (who co-wrote the script, with Lamb co-writer Sjón) is certainly a cerebral guy, who attempted to resurrect a dead dialect for his debut feature, The Witch. Yet The Northman feels more like the movie Glenn Danzig would’ve made if Glenn Danzig was the Danzig of Misfits fans’ imagination (rather than a sort of goth Tommy Wiseau).

The Northman is Shakespeare, but it’s also a movie about muscular shirtless men growling at each other. For me, it was near to perfect. “The director of The Witch made a Norwegian black metal Hamlet starring Alexander Skarsgard” is the kind of simple declarative sentence that functions as the rave it’s intended to be.

This is a movie in which a seer tells Amleth that he will one day have to choose between love of his kin and hate for his enemies. Because this is a Robert Eggers movie, you can practically hear Danzig bellowing “I CHOOOOSE HAAAAAAAATE” over chugging power chords. The Northman is a beautiful goth fantasy, not a fairy tale, and logic will always take a backseat to lurid violence and operatic conflict.

Skarsgard’s Amleth… well, he’s kind of an intense guy. In the opening frame, adolescent Amleth greets his father (Ethan Hawke), returning from battle. A ghoulish jester/prophet played by Willem Dafoe (absolutely as great as that collection of words would suggest) takes them deep into a cave for some kind of ceremony where they pretend to be wolves. Ethan Hawke burps. Young Amleth farts. Success! But just when they’re about to really get their dog-man on, Amleth’s uncle, officially listed on IMDB as “Fjolnir the Brotherless” (Claes Bang) murders Amleth’s father and carries off his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).

Young Amleth escapes his attackers (gorily, somehow), hops in a boat, and rows seemingly straight out to sea. With every stroke he repeats his vow to kill his uncle, avenge his father, and save his mother, like an Arya Stark incantation.

We skip from there straight to adult Amleth, living in the land of Rus and carrying on the various family traditions: raping, pillaging, shirtlessness, bellowing. He’s graduated from wolf cub to bear, belonging to a pillaging troupe who growl like bears before sacking mud-caked villages (God, so much mud). According to Eggers, there’s nothing 8th-century Vikings liked more than taking psychedelic drugs and growling like animals (looking like a sort of Scandinavian equivalent of the Haka). Northman presents the BERSERKER legend at its most stylized. (It should be noted that both berserker, “bear warriors,” and úlfhéðnar, “wolf warriors,” are ideas taken directly from history).

Upon discovering that Fjolnir the Brotherless has emigrated to Iceland, Amleth disguises himself as a slave, complete with branded skin, in order to gain passage. Did I mention Amleth is kind of intense? He willingly gives up his status as a prominent bear warrior to become the lowliest of the low, a slave, just so that he can murder a dude who has already been exiled to a barren wasteland. This is exactly the kind of guy whose contemporary ancestors heard English heavy metal and didn’t realize the satanic thing was a bit, so they invented Norwegian black metal and started burning down churches and killing each other.

On the slow boat to Iceland, Amleth meets a Slavic witch (“Olga of the Birch Forest,” played by Anya Taylor-Joy). The two kind of hit it off, and thus, all the pieces for Amleth’s big choice between family and vengeance are in place.

The reason I love Robert Eggers is that he tells stories in such a way that the fantastic is real. The characters in The Witch and The Northman don’t battle spirits and demons and have prophetic drug-fueled visions because Eggers is taking liberties, they do these things because that’s how people in the 8th and 16th centuries genuinely understood their world. For them, the fantastic was reality. That’s how Eggers treats it, and if we the audience get to live deliciously in the process, so much the better.

The Northman is one of the few movies I’ve seen in which the Shakespearian style of operatic plotting, with characters whose choices are meant to evoke the poles of human nature and ring of universal truth, actually works. That’s largely because Eggers’ vision is so unabashedly extreme and fully realized that it works as spectacle even when the characters behave more like ancient legends than people (and I suspect this is exactly how Shakespeare’s plays were intended to function).

The language itself isn’t necessarily Shakespearian, and, thanks to a combination of muddy sound mix and foreign actors attempting fictional accents, it’s at least 35% unintelligible. Nor is it overtly comedic, but it carries with it the unmistakable whiff of a screenwriter who was having fun. There was zero chance I wasn’t going to love a movie that allows Alexander Skarsgard to growl the line “Fjolnir is fortunate that a woman’s tide is the only blood that flowed inside his house tonight.”

Thank God for Robert Eggers. He’s one of the best we’ve got. I can’t wait to rewatch The Northman with the subtitles on.

‘The Northman’ is available only in theaters April 22nd. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.