There are a strange pair of people that live in a house down the street from me. Perhaps I am not being charitable by calling them “strange.” What does the word mean? If you look it up Google, you will get a definition that says, “unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand.” I do not know how usual it is for a dude to wear nothing but a leather loin cloth while operating a speedboat full of dogs, but then again, I clearly live a different kind of life. His roommate (I think it is his brother) does not dress this way, have nipple piercings, a long-braided beard, or walk through the neighborhood struggling to keep his pack on a leash. Hence, if they are not related, they would, on the surface, seem mismatched. This is all a long way of saying that they were the last two I expected to see sauntering into the theater when I went to view The Northman. I never took them for the cinema type. Yet, since the film is about Vikings, perhaps it was right up their alley.
The reason for the title The Northman is because the Vikings come from the land north of Europe, what we call today Scandinavia. That is where we start, in the year 895. King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is returning from a raiding expedition, and is greeted by his eager son Amleth (Oscar Novak), and expectant wife Queen Gurún (Nicole Kidman). King Aurvandill is accompanied by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who swears his fidelity to his king shortly after their return. With the king back home, he now turns to his beloved son Amleth to prepare the lad to one day rule, a need perceived by the fact that battle seems to be taking a toll on Aurvandill. After a day of pretending to be an animal with his son (more on this later), the next day Aurvandill is assassinated, betrayed by Fjölnir. Amleth manages to escape by boat, swearing as he rows to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill his uncle. Some years pass, and the now grown up Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has joined a band of Viking berserkers. Following a raid upon a village in the land of Rus (yes, that “Rus”), Amleth is reminded of his sworn duty by a Rus seer. She prophesies that he will get the revenge he seeks in a very specific way. He also learns that Fjölnir in turn had been ousted from the throne, and is living in exile in Iceland. Amleth decides the best way to get there is to disguise himself as a slave bound for the island in the Atlantic. Along the way, he meets another who had been taken during the raid, named Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), and a bond begins to form between them. Once in Iceland, Amleth contrives to be sold to the clan being ruled by Fjölnir, as does Olga. Amleth settles into his duties, though all the while plotting how to carry out his revenge. He receives some help on this score when he consults the He-Witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson), who leads Amleth to a blade that can only be unsheathed at night. Yet, the prophecy is for Amleth to defeat Fjölnir next to the gates of hell, beside a lava flow. Still, there is the matter Gunrún. With Olga’s help, involving drugging the nighttime repast of the guards set around their encampment, Amleth sneaks into her chambers. He believes she had been kidnapped by Fjölnir. Instead, she says that Aurvandill had taken her as a slave, and that Amleth’s conception had been the result of rape. So, part of his plan seems to have gone a bit awry. He carries on anyway, even saving Gunnar (Elliot Rose), Fjölnir’s youngest son, from death during a game of knattleikr (think field hockey, if that helps), and earning Fjölnir’s blessing to take Olga as his woman. Nonetheless, Amleth has not forgotten his vow, and murders Fjölnir’s eldest son Thorir the Proud (Gustav Lindh). This event, along with a number of other dead bodies that begin piling up around the encampment, brings Fjölnir to blame the slaves that arrived along with Amleth, for this was the point at which bad things began happening. It is then that Amleth reveals himself for his real identity, a revelation that shakes Fjölnir but allows Olga to escape execution. Amleth is tortured, but not killed because he had hidden the location of Thorir’s heart, which seems to be an important piece of Viking burial ceremonies. It is a handy murder of crows (look it up) that release Amleth from his restraints. Initially, his next move is to escape Iceland with Olga, who is pregnant with twins, and go live with his relatives. However, as they are about to leave, he realizes that Fjölnir will just come looking for them. Instead, he decides to go back and face Fjölnir, while Olga continues on without him. Back at the farm, Amleth murders Gunrún and Gunnar, and is discovered standing over their bodies by Fjölnir. It is at this point that the uncle agrees to duel the nephew, and their prescribed location for their clash is, you guessed it, next to an erupting volcano. The fight results in both their deaths. With his dying breath, Amleth is granted a vision of Olga and his progeny before his soul is carried away to Valhalla.
If you are not into Viking lore, unlike Alxander Skarsgård or my neighbors down the street, apparently, then The Northman is a problematic movie. Even if you love those things, I would not recommend it. History is brutal. The Vikings were among the brutalest of the brutal. There is the level of violence one would anticipate from a film with this as its subject, and it is in keeping with its R rating. There is also the scene where Olga wipes her menstrual blood on Fjölnir’s face, not to mention the dabbling in witchcraft and the people doing their best to become animals like Aurvandill and little Amleth, or the berserkers. This is over the top. It is little wonder that Christian writers at the height of the period of Viking raids across Europe refer to the Scandinavian ancestors in unflattering terms. Interestingly, Christianity is mentioned in the film. When things start going south for Fjölnir, he begins accusing the slaves of being Christian sorcerers. I find this ironic when they appear to try their best to turn themselves into wolves. The notion is laughable, but only from a more modern and informed perspective. Indeed, during the time period in which the film is set, late ninth and early tenth centuries, there was a titanic clash of cultures underway. The lands that the Vikings typically raided because they were the ones that, at that time, had the riches to loot, were Christian. One thing to understand about the Vikings that the film actually gets right is that in addition to attacking settlements within reach of their famous longboats, they tended to settle there as well. Christianity, despite having several churches destroyed and clergy killed, survived the onslaught. In turn, the Vikings were transformed by it. A film like this one attempts to recapture a lost era. While there is a lot in it that I could do without, there is value in the attention to detail they put into it, even if it is a little boring and nonsensical at times. What this Catholic takes away from viewing it is what it does not show. In the end, it is Christianity that triumphed over the barbarity of Viking culture, or at least the baser aspects of it. Previously, the ideal was to die in battle, and to fulfill that aim, Vikings had to be perpetually at war. This is not a good way to live, and Christianity taught this lesson. It did not involve witchcraft, but rather the key tenet of the Faith: to love one’s neighbor. This way, people do not have to die next to volcanos anymore.
As the end credits to The Northman rolled, I could hear the mumbled opinions of the paltry, early Sunday evening group of theater goers. Most of them expressed disapprobation, but I could hear my neighbors down the street muttering their enjoyment. “Muttered enjoyment” may seem like a contradiction of terms, but it is accurate. It is also an indication of the two camps of people this film makes. You will either like it (mildly) or hate it. Either way, I would not recommend it. There are a lot of images in it that I would rather have not seen, and I do not think them good for any audience.