The only advantage I have gleaned over the past month, in which I’ve had long Covid and unable to move under all the cats standing on my head, is that I’ve had the chance to see what the movie-going world has had to say about The Northman before seeing it myself.
It has been called a masterpiece – one particularly funny pull quote I saw on the side of a bus called it this generation’s Gladiator – so when I finally went to see it yesterday I was justifiably excited. It has a lot of stuff I love: Norse mythology, a cast of favourites like Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicole Kidman, and the promise of a director in Robert Eggers who could bring his own unique take to the arena of action epics. I should have watched Firestarter instead.
About twenty minutes in, I had the realisation that The Northman is really fucking bad. It’s beautifully shot, the action is great, the world-building is solid, but these positives, which were front-loaded in every trailer, are only a small part of the viewing experience. The rest of it is about two hours worth of the worst acting and writing I’ve seen from people I consider immensely talented. I was tempted to throw Robert Eggers to the dogs here, but unlike his two horror masterpieces, The VVitch and The Lighthouse, the director didn’t have full creative control of The Northman. Given a starry cast and a $70-80 million budget, as well as being out of his cerebral horror comfort zone, makes me hesitant to put all of the blame at Eggers door. Though he deserves at least a good portion of it.
The Northman’s status as an action masterpiece is frankly baffling. It’s just a bog-standard revenge story dressed up in Norse esoterica – yes, the action is good, but the really excellent sequences are few and far between in the enormous 156-minute runtime. It does nothing any better than films like Gladiator and Conan the Barbarian, and does a lot so much worse. Amleth, played by an uncharacteristically limited Alexander Skasgard, is a cipher, a blunt object with the kind of one-track mind of vengeance that gets boring, then hilarious, then boring again over the course of his mumbling journey. His quest to avenge his father, played horribly by an explosively hammy Ethan Hawke who at least warned me about the quality of the rest of this thing in the first five minutes, is so overwrought yet curiously drama-free that I kept wonder why the Hel I should care.
The film also decides to give Amleth the explicit support of Odin, who is a very palpable presence in the movie – and, with the literal King of the Gods behind him, it’s hard to see how this can all work in any other way but Amleth’s favour, rendering the plot even more tension-free than before. Also, and I feel like this should be obvious: if your main character has help from the Gods to get him out of plot-corners you’ve painted him into, you’re cheating. Yet that’s not the worst of it. Let’s move on to Anya Taylor-Joy.
The fact that Amleth and Taylor-Joy’s Olga of the Birch Forest have no chemistry whatsoever is the least of this character’s problems. Here is a question that you would think would have an obvious answer: would you fuck a guy that came to your village as part of an army who are specifically there to kill the men, rape the women, burn the children, and sell the leftovers into slavery? Go on, guess what she does. Viking times: when men were men and women were stolen for sex and labour, apparently. Love story of our time this certainly isn’t, and this feels like something that certainly can be laid at Eggers’ and his co-writer Sjorn’s door. I don’t necessarily have a problem with these characters falling in love, but The Northman never acknowledges the horrible events that brought them together, events that Amleth is responsible for. He is involved in an invasion of her town that directly leads her to being enslaved, and within about ten screentime minutes, she’s snuggling up to him on a boat, and the blindingly obvious conflict in the beginnings of their romance is never touched on.
This is made even worse when it is revealed that Amleth’s father kidnapped mother, enslaved her, and raped her. The Northman introduces this grey area but doesn’t use it to critique Amleth’s quest or character in any meaningful way. Amleth’s actions helped enslave Olga, the parallels between his story and his parents obvious, but The Northman doesn’t pull any worthwhile comparison or excavation from this intriguing moral quandary. Instead of dealing with that, Olga just makes goo-goo eyes at him while he can’t shut up about his divine rite to kill everyone, and Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother is somehow treated as less sympathetic in the aftermath of the reveal. This is really bad writing, choices that stink of a studio simplifying conflict as not to alienate an audience who, after a decade of shows like Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander, can actually handle these moral complexities and flawed characters.
If you think The Northman is a masterpiece then all power to you. I don’t. For me, a masterpiece needs to be strong in both story and character. If it isn’t then all of the beautiful landscapes, costumes, cinematography, and action can’t make up for it.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via The New Yorker)