Five Cent Cinema: The Northman

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Real men bite their noses

This is the era of toxic masculinity – reveling in it (MAGA world) or criticizing it (“The Power of the Dog”). And to wallow in myth and mythical creatures – Harry Potter, Marvel superheroes, “The Green Knight”. Demanding director Robert Eggers (“The Witch,” “The Lighthouse”) tries all of that in his (and famed Icelandic author Sjón’s) retelling of the Danish myth on which William Shakespeare based “Hamlet.”

In Iceland in the 900s, a king is assassinated by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) who takes the throne and marries; a queen whose sexual desires are explicit and who willingly shares a bed with her husband’s killer; fates, furies, and above all a son thirsty for revenge. In Eggers’ account, the son does not notoriously deliberate (“To be or not to be”), he immerses himself in his role: “I will avenge you, Father!” I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjolnir! Seers and soothsayers tell him that he cannot escape his fate and, like the protagonists of Greek plays, he cannot. There’s a hint of an alternate future, but it’s too little, too late.

Ingvar Sigurdsson as He-Witch with Heimir The Fool’s (Willem Dafoe) Yorick-shaped skull.

The cast of ‘The Northman’ is stunning: Alexander Skarsgård’s piercing blue eyes and handsome but terrifying face of revenge dominate in this portrayal of Amleth, a far cry from Skarsgård’s sleazy, Elon Musk-like character in ‘Succession ” on the television. Nicole Kidman is just as intimidating as the sexualized Queen Gudrún; it tells a story of Amleth’s father that paints a very different picture of the hero Amleth seeks to avenge. Ethan Hawke is the murdered king, Anya Taylor-Joy (from the TV series “The Queen’s Gambit”) the love interest, and Willem Dafoe the Shakespeare-style madman (and Yorick-style skull). Icelandic Bjork makes an appearance as a blind seer and haunting singer.

Pictured: Nicole Kidman (left) is intimidating as the sexualized Queen Gudrún.
Nicole Kidman (left) is intimidating as the sexualized Queen Gudrún.

Blood and gore are everywhere. Heads are cut off, hearts cut out, noses eaten, heads knocked off; people are crucified, literally. Naked men dance around the fire beating drums. Characters have names such as Hallgrímr Half-Troll, Finnr The Nose-Stub, Hersveinn Battle Hard, Hjalti Battle Hasty. Eggers is particularly adept at pushing the men (for the most part) into the harshest environments – here, a beautiful Iceland in its barrenness – to see how they will fare, alone and with each other.

The film’s sound is also powerful, perhaps channeling the heavy metal of an earlier era (Iron Maiden, 1975-, Slayer, 1981-, Manowar, 1980-, and many other bands) and the crisis of masculinity that was central to its culture. . A common body movement within heavy metal was headbanging; a 1980s variation, Death Metal, incorporated “death growls”. Both reflect a desire to construct a new masculinity through a return to the “primitive” self, an idea best captured in Robert Bly’s 1990 classic, “Iron John: A Book About Men.” And both have resonance for the film.

Photo: "The man from the north" constructs a new masculinity through a return to the “primitive” self.
“The Northman” builds a new masculinity through a return to the “primitive” self.
Pictured: Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest, Love Not Strong Enough.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest, a not strong enough love interest.

Yet “The Northman” does not rise to the level of the exploration of the issues it raises: masculinity, destiny, love, truth, Freudian sexuality. The film remains mired in its superhero world – lots of shock and awe in sound and setting, and not enough substance.

Myths abound. Not just the Hamlet story, there are also Christian myths – the sword and stone, the quest (Greek or Christian), even Spartacus leading the slaves, although Amleth isn’t really a leader. We can play the game of “naming this myth”, but the proliferation of references does not produce an exploration of ideas. For all its failings, “The Green Knight” brought the mythos into the present by ironically joking about its protagonist. “The Northman” reduces the hero to his fate: pure revenge.


Date: 2022

Stars: 2 (out of 4)

Director: Robert Egger

With: Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anna Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe

Duration: 137 minutes

Country: United States

Languages: English, Old Norse (the latter sometimes subtitled in English)

Availablity: In theaters now; for future streaming availability, see Just look here.


Main image: Skarsgård’s Amleth is a far cry from his sleazy, Elon Musk-like persona in the ‘Succession’ TV series.


See all Five Cent Cinema reviews by 2 Film Critics

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