The bold, precise and clean shots of Robert Eggers’ first two films, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), claim themselves as confident, as works of self-conscious auteurism, but actually suggest a real limit in vision and deeper insecurity. Where everything must be designed, storyboarded and historically accurate, there’s so little room for the outside world to come in, it all lays solid and dead. In The Witch every shot points towards its own end and then we can only wait for it to get there, listening to gears slowly click. Luckily The Northman (2022), Eggers’ latest film, is quite a bit looser, but still there’s a similar sense of waiting in this predictable, shockingly straight-forward take on the legend that inspired Hamlet.
Even though the total lack of structure in The Lighthouse—a series of scenes roughly in order of mental degradation—is hardly satisfying, a lot of potential is lost in moving away from that style, the problem of the main character Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgård) fundamental emptiness wouldn’t be subsided, it’s very deeply built into the story and part of its point, but it would be assisted by leaning more into the surreal. One take on him is as someone who can’t distinguish dreams from reality, he’s a character whose beliefs don’t change, he isn’t emptied out by revenge, he’s always been empty, indoctrinated so deeply as the son of a King (Ethan Hawke) that this structure and mythos lives on in him, he piously follows them through even after he’s lost everything. His father’s dead and he’s left to hide away, gruellingly crawling his way back up as a peasant and as a slave; the beliefs are more real to him than any of that. But as in all of Eggers’ films, the real and the unreal are pretty clearly compartmentalised. The Witch is pretty much literal, and The Lighthouse never allows its visions the ambiguity of lingering with reality—they aren’t developed enough to be more than flickering hallucinations—here, they’re neatly packed into dream sequences, or caused by some kind of drug in a religious ritual.
We all know how Vikings and the surrounding imagery have accrued a very nasty set of modern associations, and of course I’m not accusing Eggers of any alignment with them, but it is my personal opinion that without a strong interpretation there isn’t enough reason to make a film about them. Eggers has talked about how “the audience is meant to be exhilarated”—a shot following a strike to the head right through to its bloody aftermath shows that well enough—“but then […] meant to feel guilty for feeling exhilarated”. However, Amleth, whilst of course being very violent, somehow avoids doing most of the less cool-looking, deeply unpleasant stuff that happens around him. He tends to stand around with a vacant expression—Skarsgård’s performance is blank by design and by flaw—watching as others burn down towns, pillage and the implied even worse. There is no where near enough commitment to that contrast to make it hit, you’re much less likely to feel guilty than you are to enjoy it all as ultra-violent fun, as I think many people will. At worst you could accuse Eggers of liking machismo too much, certainly the case in The Lighthouse, an art horror film with no scares and no ideas that in all that absence exists mostly to bask in a comedic masculinity, the line between critique and pleasure blurred beyond any reasonable distinction. At best, this is the exact kind of complexity the studio would want to cut—they were reportedly unhappy with an earlier edit—to market this as another Gladiator (2000) or Braveheart (1995).
Yet the film struggles to be more progressive than Shakespeare’s play from the sixteen-hundreds. After Amleth has the chance to leave all this behind and start a new life with his lover Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) but decides he has to finish the path of vengeance he has started, yes, he dies, but we also see him flying up to Valhalla. Maybe that’s just a hallucination, but he also sees the continuation of his royal line, Olga bearing twins, one of them based on the real life female viking leader Björkö; it seem a bit of stretch to say his dying fever dream just so happens to predict real history. And certainly we are left on a moment of exhilaration rather than guilt. It’s impressive in a way, most stories naturally point towards the futility of revenge, it’s instinctual, and of course his one does too to an extent, but it seems to be having the opposite tone vs text conflict of many old Hollywood movies where the more conservative text is complicated by a directors interpretation. In The Northman Eggers seems more convinced of revenge than the story itself, he buys into so much of the milieu. In one scene, Amleth, now a slave trying to get close enough to kill his traitorous uncle (Claes Bang), is mocked for having the stench of low blood and it’s not entirely clear to me if the irony is in the fact that there is no stench of low blood—there is no low blood, it’s all nonsense—or in this character’s inability to recognise Amleth for who he is.
One of the most obvious moments of subversion is during a bizarre ritual that young Amleth is taken into by his father, deep underground they bark like dogs whilst visions flicker with the heavy and epic seriousness that characterise all his later visions and dreams—including a fight with an undead king—but in midst of it, at its dramatic height, Amleth farts, a trick anyone whose seen The Lighthouse is familiar with. In that film it’s a means of flattering the audience, the joke cannot simply be a fart joke—that farts are funny—it must be about a fart joke being in contrast with the art film context, in order words, a cowardly fart joke. It plays much better in The Northman by actively undercutting the drama of the ritual, gesturing towards its base stupidity, if without actually saying it or putting more than a slight hitch in the epic tone. I think some of this reverence is the fruits of Eggers well recorded historical fetishism—it’s worth noting that the ritual Eggers said was most fictionalised is the one he most clearly subverts—that’s a big reason to adapt this text rather than Hamlet—where, as with most Shakespeare most pleasure is found in the text—it cuts that all back leaving plenty of room for meticulously recreated sets, costumes and practices.
And then there’s the women. Whilst The Lighthouse leans too much into the machismo for my taste, it is supposed to be a critique of masculinity run amok, a world without women, and The Witch is explicitly feminist, thought not uncomplicated in its interpretation of witches compared to how they exist in the real world. In realty, witches, of course, do not exist, they are a construct of a patriarchal society to mythologise and stigmatised women’s interiority and any desires they might have to leave these oppressive structures, but in The Witch, this construct is real, witches exist but as a by-product of oppression, as women’s only way out. I can’t say it’s exactly a reclamation (and who is Eggers to reclaim them anyway) when the witches are shot with a shock and disgust towards conventionally unattractive female bodies.
I don’t think this take is necessarily bad, it’s messy, complex and maybe even interesting, but The Northman paints it in a different light with the character Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), Amleth’s mother and an unforgivably misogynistic caricature. Towards the end of the film she reveals to Amleth that, not only did she wish for the King to be killed, but when she was being carried away by the murder, his uncle Fjölnir, she wasn’t hysterically crying, but hysterically laughing. This would be one thing if the scene stopped here—if a little reliant on a negative archetype for women—Amleth’s path of revenge is more futile than simply the endless cycle it creates, but because what he’s fighting for, his beliefs, are build on a foundation of evil; he is literally a child of rape. This would hardly be great reinvention of the genre, a more graphic variation on a not-uncommon twist, but then the scene continues. Gudrún tells her son that if he does kill Fjölnir, she would become his queen, and leans in to kiss him. She’s not loyal to one man other another, but a character of deep and inherent deceit, clinging to whatever power she can get and cackling evilly as she does it. You could try and stretch this to be read in line with The Witch—this is her only way of surviving in this world—but you’d have to fill in a lot of gaps for the movie, be more generous than the rest has warranted, and at some point you have to accept that the simplest answer is often the most true.
In this context, it’s hard to interpret that final vision of Amleth’s daughter, the real life warrior queen, on the one hand, we’ve been programmed by girl boss culture to read this as a good thing, but it’s not fair to project that onto Eggers. If we go by his stated goals—if not achieved results—as with The Lighthouse, it shows the downsides of an excess of masculinity and therefore the change to a female leader seems a positive one, a change to this endless cycle, if not exactly a cessation of it. Amleth’s revenge has achieved, or at least not stopped something good, some kind of progress, and if those things are totally unrelated, a historical coincidence—and with how exceptional it is within general historical knowledge and the films milieu, it seems unlikely to be making no comment—then why show it alongside Amleth’s noble flight up to Valhalla.
Once again, there is far too much work to be done to stretch The Northman beyond anything more than a thoroughly conventional and ploddingly paced, straight re-telling of this myth. Funnily enough it shares the same problem as many of the worst Shakespeare adaptations: it is totally bereft of interpretation; more than any other film, it has the most in common with Macbeth (2015). Both show that covering a fight scene in thick red smoke, having a stylistic sheen and spending a lot of time claiming themselves as the art of an auteur can’t hide a total absence. In all of Eggers work, the idea of being a visionary comes long before any vision.
1 — Sight & Sound, May 2022: 'Grim Up North' by Jonathan Romney