The Northman (2022) – A Movie Review

The Northman is a retelling of the Amleth story from Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.  This is the story that forms the basis of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

The story begins when Amleth is an adolescent.  His father King Aurvandill (played unrecognizably by Ethan Hawke) has just returned from a Viking raid.  He was wounded badly and tells his Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) that he’s decided it’s time to initiate Amleth into the rituals associated with being king.  The father and son participate in a rite that involves them howling like wolves and lapping food off a plate on the floor of an underground temple.  During the ceremony Amleth has a vision of the chain of life from generation to generation and he swears to avenge any attack on his family.

Immediately afterward, his father is set upon and murdered by his bastard half-brother Fjölnir and his followers.  Amleth barely escapes with his life but as he rows away from his island home, he swears to revenge his father and rescue his mother who has been seized by his uncle.  He swears to kill Fjölnir.

Next, we see Amleth years later.  He’s a grown man who has become a berserker who participates in Viking raids for some chieftain.  He is fierce beyond the bounds of his comrades and he cuts through his enemies like a knife through butter.  While involved in the sack of a Slav settlement he meets a priestess in the local temple and learns that his fate is still determined by the vengeance he has sworn against his uncle.  She tells him that his fate is to kill Fjölnir surrounded by a lake of fire.

Back in Scandinavia he learns that his uncle was dispossessed of his island kingdom by the King of Denmark.  Fjölnir has fled to Iceland and is now a petty chieftain with just a few retainers and using a small slave force to raise sheep.  Amleth decides to disguise himself as a slave and work on Fjölnir’s farm in order to have his revenge and free his mother.  During his voyage to Iceland, he meets a Slav prisoner named Olga to whom he is attracted.  The two slaves form a bond and when Amleth manages to rise in the slave ranks to foreman Olga is given to him as his woman.  The two plot Amleth’s revenge and their escape.

Now Amleth meets another seer who tells him the details of his fate.  He must go to the gates of Hel and there recover the magical sword Draugr.  Accomplishing this feat, he prepares his revenge.  Under cover of darkness, he kills some of Fjölnir’s men and nails their bodies to a cabin wall.  Using a drug that Olga prepares for him he poisons the garrison and they become confused and slay each other during the night.  While this is going on Amleth goes to Fjölnir’s house to kill him but instead meets Gudrún.  He reveals his identity and tells her he is there to kill Fjölnir and free her.  But she laughs and tells him that she planned his father’s murder because she was a slave and never loved Aurvandill.  Amleth is horrified and kills Fjölnir’s son Thorir and cuts out his heart.

Fjölnir threatens to kill Olga and Amleth exchanges himself for her.  While Fjölnir performs his son’s funeral Amleth is freed from his captivity by ravens (Odin’s messengers).  Then Olga carries him away on a horse to the coast.  There he finds out that she is pregnant with his children (twins).  They plan to escape to the Orkneys where Amleth has kin.  They embark on a ship but as they’re sailing away Amleth has a vision of his fate.  He knows that Olga will give birth to his son and daughter who will carry on his line.  But he knows that his fate is to fulfill his oath.  He jumps from the ship and swims back to shore.

Amleth kills the retainers and sets the slaves free to burn down the farm.  He heads for Fjölnir’s house but finds Gudrún.  He does not intend to kill her but she attacks him with a sword and finally he stabs her.  Then her young son attacks Amleth with a knife and finally Amleth kills him.  At this point Fjölnir arrives and tells Amleth to meet him at the Gates of Hel to settle things.  Then he carries away his wife and son for burial.

Badly wounded by the wounds he’s already gotten Amleth fights Fjölnir amid the flowing lava of the volcano.  As Amleth is weakening he gathers his strength for one last flurry.  As Fjölnir buries his blade in Amleth’s chest he beheads his uncle.  And as Amleth is dying he has a vision of Olga telling him that his children are safe and to relax into his fate.  He does so and we see him carried by a Valkyrie to Valhalla.

Wow.  That’s a lot.  Okay, so this is an unusual movie.  It’s a mixed bag.  The intent is to recreate the frame of reference of a Viking prince of the ninth century.  In some ways this seems successful.  But as a movie the dramatic content is difficult for a modern audience to accept.  Seeing a man and a boy howling like wolves seems bizarre, almost silly.  But I can see how this might be a way to convey the berserker mindset.  The fighting scenes are well done.  Despite the unusual content of the plot, I thought the main characters were very well acted.  But I had a hard time empathizing with any of the characters.  Their worldview was so far from my reality that I just couldn’t believe in it. This being said I enjoyed the movie.  It was grim and bizarre but I saw what they were trying to do and I enjoyed the experience of trying to believe in that frame of reference.  I can’t recommend this movie to anyone who doesn’t think this description is interesting.  It’s not a normal movie.  Probably people interested in Viking history are the primary audience.  Your milage may vary.

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Ed Brault
Ed Brault
2 months ago

…and from the Fury of the Northmen, Oh, Lord, Deliver us

-Irish Prayer.!

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