When I first saw the trailer for The Northman I wasn’t interested. A film about Vikings, masculinity, and honour could surely only be a medieval copy of Gladiator. While the latter is okay in its sort, it’s not the kind of film I’d normally go to the cinema for, and I was prepared to give it a miss.
But my brother, always a reliable source of honest opinions, did go to see The Northman and loved it. What convinced me in the end, though, was the fact that said brother and I had seen director Eggers’s previous film – The Lighthouse – together, just before the pandemic kicked off. I loved that film. And maybe it would be interesting to see what Eggers had done next, especially with the backing of a large studio.
Fortunately my fears were not confirmed. The Northman is no Gladiator and while the film contains some spectacular action scenes it is not really a Hollywood blockbuster either. Interviews suggest that Eggers did his research and spent considerable time creating a Viking world that would be as historically accurate as possible. I’m no historian, but The Northman does feel much more believable than many other historical film’s I’ve seen.
The film is also extremely technically accomplished. Some shots are breathtaking and must have taken a lot of time and effort to get right. The battle scenes in particular are absorbing and therefore all the more terrifying. For even though this is no horror film, there is gore, and quite a lot of it. The Viking age, it seems, was not a very nice age at all.
I was struck by the film’s more spiritual or even supernatural films. Spirituality must have been important to people living in such harsh conditions and Eggers uses this aspect to lift the story beyond the “orgy of violence” trope. Scenes in which the protagonist – excellently played by Alexander Skarsgård – encounters priests or shamans are terrifyingly powerful.
They also, together with a few plot twists which I obviously won’t spoil, change the story from a run-of-the-mill revenge epic to something very different. I came away from the film wondering to what extent the honour, masculinity and violence the main character believed in at the start ended up serving him. Toxic masculinity has become a somewhat fashionable and therefore perhaps meaningless term, and some viewers may still read the film as a celebration of powerful men avenging their murdered loved ones, but for me the film questions what good, if any, can come from this type of bloody heroism.
Of course not everyone will like this film. Dialogues are often slow and almost Shakespearean, there’s a sense of mystery and unease that prevents comfortable enjoyment. But then these aspects was also present in The Lighthouse, so it’s probably characteristic of Eggers’s style of film making, and it suits the film’s grave narrative universe. In the end, this is a classic tragedy about a man who loses everything and sets out to regain what he believes he deserves. Will he succeed? Off you go to the cinema to find out.