Claims to authenticity can be a ploy for cadging good reviews. When filmmakers trumpet the accuracy of their work, it’s a sign that they’re straining after praise on factual matters and attempting to foreclose critique of a film’s aesthetics, its pleasure factor, or its emotional truth. In short, it’s a kind of advertising. Robert Eggers has been emphasizing, every chance he gets, the extensive research that he put into getting Viking stuff right in “The Northman”—reading, consulting prominent historians, and embodying his findings in the production design and reflecting it in the action. As if anybody but those historians would care much about the details.
What critics eat up is the quasi-scholarly activity that squarely places the movie under the aegis of intellectual endeavor, the presumption that factual truth is Eggers’s foremost value and the movie’s preëminent quality. As for non-critics, it’s evidence that Eggers is working very hard for their pleasure. With “The Northman,” it seems to matter to Eggers that we know he suffers for the sake of our gratification and edification. He makes sure to emphasize this point, too, in discussing the physical rigors of the shoot, which took place in Northern Ireland and Iceland, in cold weather and largely outdoors, and involved crowds and battle scenes, some in long and carefully choreographed shots. (One of the elaborate scenes, he said, required some twenty-eight takes.)
For all of its elaborate décor and roiling action, “The Northman” is a movie of subtraction, which is developed less by the positive attention to a story than by the elimination of what makes the story enduringly significant. It’s centered on a character named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), the model for Hamlet. In Eggers’s film, he’s no Danish intellectual but a Viking prince. When the story begins, in 895 A.D., Amleth is a boy (played, at that age, by Oscar Novak) being raised by his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), in the ways of war and the morality of revenge. Aurvandill is murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) before Amleth’s eyes; the boy also sees his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), carried off screaming by his uncle, who usurps the throne. Pursued by Fjölnir’s henchmen, young Amleth escapes by boat.
He next appears as an adult, a foundling turned into a Viking warrior—one of the berserkers who, possessed of animal spirit, fight wildly, as if in a trance. As they conquer a fortress in “the land of Rus,” the berserkers enslave the vanquished for their leader, Fjölnir. Guided by his oath—“I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir”—Amleth passes himself off as a slave in order to enter Fjölnir’s new encampment, in Iceland. In the boat that carries the captives, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a native of Rus and a sort of sorceress. They fall instantly in love; he discloses his plan, she swears to help. “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she says. “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Taken by Fjölnir as a sex slave, Olga manages to fend off his sexual demands; through deeds of valor and brutality, Amleth gains the king’s favor, and takes the opportunity to strike. As a one-man raider, he leaves a trail of corpses that throws Fjölnir’s rustic court into chaos. But his obsession with vengeance threatens his romantic escape with Olga.
To tell this story, which Eggers co-wrote with the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, the director creates a pictorial world of visions and wonders, muck and gore, to evoke the crudeness and the cruelty, the mystical tenor and animistic passion, of the Viking realm—of rural Northern European medieval society over all. The cinematography conjures wetness and chill in a monochrome palette that’s interspersed with color images which are most notable for the mossy green of hilly fields. The prettiness of the pictures—the careful lighting, the calculated reflections, the gentle drift or dramatic rush of the camera—undercuts the roughness, the cruelty, the gore (decapitations, disembowelments, hacked-off limbs, bloody slashes and beatings), the freeze, the mud, the ice. The images undercut the movie’s sense of physicality altogether.
With its prettification of the bodily world, “The Northman” offers no synesthesia, no evocation of any sense beside vision. There’s nothing like a musical sensibility in the images, which may be why the soundtrack is nearly wall-to-wall with a heavy-handed score borrowing Viking instruments to evoke not just the movie’s emotional world but its physical one. One of the disheartening peculiarities of the movie is that it doesn’t convey any of the sensory aspects of the world it depicts. For all the care the production lavishes on making costumes and weapons, on building huts and caves and rendering fire-lit interiors and their furnishings, the camera doesn’t linger on the objects, doesn’t give them texture or weight or temperature. Eggers’s direction is incurious, as if he satisfied and exhausted his enthusiasm in the research. The images are illustrations of the story, decorations of it.
If the bulk of research appears to have blocked off the film’s imagination, then the burden of on-set exertion has had a similar effect on the performances of its remarkable cast. The script is an unintentionally ludicrous nonlanguage—an old-fashioned-ese that burdens the actors with unspeakable lines. (Fjölnir, reaching home, expresses delight in seeing his “queen’s fair lox”; then I realized he meant “locks” of hair.) Dialogue is rendered in the pseudo-profound pronouncements that have become the sententious lingua franca of the hero’s quest. The stew of accents and stilted diction don’t help; the heightened manner applied to grandiose aphorisms offers consistent unintended comedy. Eggers pays more attention to choreographed battles than to the essential simplicity of speech and gesture, which nonetheless occupy far more of the film; his direction doesn’t give the actors a chance to develop a distinctive and consistent stylization that might at least match the artifice of the writing.
Even the anthropological and mythological elements drop in with more emphasis on their decorative possibilities and alienating peculiarities than on their substance. It takes an ancient sword of magical power for Amleth to pursue his bloody path, and it’s seen and used, but it’s also inscribed; what does the inscription say? It gets a shaman’s quick explanation, a bit of imagery of its production, even Amleth’s fantasy of using it, but the movie’s mystical and spiritual environment is presented with the same flashy incuriosity as its physical one. (The closest exception is a brief scene that features Björk as a blind visionary; her abstracted manner and cockleshell-dangling headdress hint at the more moving and wondrous film left untapped in the story and the subject.)
The implicit relationship of Amleth’s tale to Shakespeare’s play is in the absence of literary style. In regressing to Shakespeare before Shakespeare, Eggers replaces intricate and complex poetry with thudding banalities. He voids Amleth—a muscular warrior raised in crude ways and trained in cruder ones—of any inwardness, as if in fear of rendering him effete or off-putting. Eggers’s action-film Hamlet is neither bookish nor inhibited nor speculative nor plotting with far-reaching imagination of complicated stratagems—nor witty nor, above all, endowed with a sense of humor. Without humor, Shakespeare is utterly inaccessible, incomprehensible. The dun and furrowed narrowness of Amleth’s temperament is a perfect match for the hermetic earnestness and bombast of Eggers’s style, the vanity of the tale of research and effort that takes precedence over the onscreen results themselves. Instead of the roots of Shakespeare’s play, “The Northman” merely serves up its raw material both half-baked and overcooked.