In Rus, which we now call Ukraine, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) begins his pursuit of revenge. A sea captain who later aids him is called Volodymyr. But these incidentals have no relevance to the current war, except in one aspect that I want to come on to.
Though the film’s hero is called Amleth, the original of Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, you can forget Elsinore. The director Robert Eggers’s world in The Northman is that of the Norse sagas, of corpse-eating ravens, runes, mud, gore, human sacrifice and sudden violence. One of the runes on the title cards between scenes is named after the word for ‘ulcer’. The sun never shines. It is surprising that, in their wet homespuns, everyone isn’t shivering.
Occasionally we glimpse spectacular, soggy Icelandic scenery, but two hours are principally cheered by a succession of slittings, maimings and disembowellings that often made me hide behind my notebook.
Don’t tell anyone, but Tolkien would have been interested in this film. I doubt he’d have liked the art nouveau Elvish artefacts in Peter Jackson’s films of his own myths. Where Jackson used cartoon shorthand for violence, Eggers likes to show a nose being cut off.
Amleth even ends, like The Lord of the Rings, on a volcano like Mount Doom, doom being the Old Norse domr, the ‘law of irrevocable destiny’ that dogs Amleth. He finds he can’t cut the threads of fate spun by the Norns, those implacable immortal women.
This being a Norse saga, the place of women is limited, though the performance of Björk as a seer with three eyes is a delight. But even the dirtiest-faced Viking had a mummy, and in Iceland Amleth eventually finds himself in Gertrude’s closet, I mean the bedroom of his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), now married to the uncle (whose name I didn’t catch but began with an ‘F’ and sounded as though it had an umlaut somewhere, played by Claes Bang), who killed his father. The oedipal encounter is a turning point.
The love interest is the blond Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). She is a Slav, a word from which in historical fact we derived slave, though she becomes a queen of a sort. It’s hard to tell about any of the acting: in this world, where shedding a tear is a life event, it would be authentic to be wooden.
Eggers sets great store by material authenticity, as he did in The Witch (2015). There must be inspiration from Maeshowe on Orkney (the Neolithic chambered cairn into which Vikings broke 3,900 years after its construction) for Amleth’s encounter with the mound-dweller (barrow-wight for Tolkien), a warrior of the kind known to gamers as a draugr, an undead one. It’s funny that the sword Amleth wins, which rightly has a name, is also called Draugr, incised on its blade in runes: ᛞᚱᚼᚢᚷᛦ. There is heated discussion over whether that inscription should be in letters of the Elder Futhark or the Younger. Fans can be trainspottery.
Even references to Hamlet remain resolutely Old Norse. Divination is delivered through the shrunken lips of the preserved head of the court jester (Willem Dafoe in a jester’s cap), Yorick in Shakespeare.
Eggers says it is all Conan the Barbarian mixed up with Andrei Rublev. Some scenes do recall Tarkovsky, but the world is wholly pagan, except that, fearing the homestead’s Christian slaves, a warrior remarks: ‘Their god is a corpse nailed to a tree.’ So it might have looked, and The Northman has the same problem with appearances. Violence in the foreground is like flak concealing what lies behind; perhaps it should have been even longer with less action.
Eggers likes to quote Dryden’s preface to his Fables (1700): ‘Mankind is ever the same and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered.’ That alteration of manners tends to hide everlasting human nature, yet an incident in the film of the burning of a barn full of villagers comes over as no less evil done by followers of Frey than today by followers of Putin. But for us effete filmgoers, it’s martial virtues, not vices, that we might overlook, notably courage and fortitude. In that way the film is perhaps applicable to Ukraine after all.