The Northman

The Northman ★★

To Be, or to Be, There Is No Question

That Shakespeare was a helluva writer, huh. "The Northman," rooted in the Viking legend of Amleth, one of the sources for the English bard's "Hamlet" (get it, "Hamlet" is an anagram of "Amleth"), demonstrates as much. Philosophical tract, a drama of ideas, a play of words, a play within a play, or intriguing character study, this movie isn't. It's visual spectacle, but overbearing even on that account. Yet another graceful long tracking shot, this time for Berserker bloodshed, and lavish vistas of natural Irish, er... Icelandic beauty can get dull like anything else after a while.

There's some attempt at demythologization, but it's superficial, and includes a tedious Excalibur digression into an Arthurian legend-styled pastiche. Director and co-writer Robert Eggers claims that, too, is rooted in Norse myths, but even he concedes nobody is making the connection of a magic sword to anything other than King Arthur, or "Star Wars." He fights a corpse for the sacred weapon, but it turns out to be a fantasy, as contrasted with the apparent reality that he merely takes it from crumbling bones. The notion that much of what we see otherwise of his exploits is imaginary remains underdeveloped, no more than a dream of Valhalla or a suggestive pause beside a volcanic hellscape while seemingly fighting naked would-be Darth Vader.

Maybe this is what happens when you hire an American to do a Scandinavian's job. That this supposed adaptation of origins is made by way of its more familiar, mostly English, remakes seems especially blatant in its more Shakespearean moments. Not only that we have Macbethian prophecies, a dithering "Titus Andronicus" revenge plot, and Willem Dafoe playing the Shakespearean fool, but a feign towards an Oedipus complex seemingly straight out of Freudian interpretations of "Hamlet" and before returning to the real obsession over the hereditary line of succession. By the way, as much as I'm generally impressed with the film visually, I certainly could've done with less of the family-tree imagery, if also with less emphasis on blood (lines). A funeral is almost turned into the play-within-a-play, as well. If you want to do English myth, you can just do that, and do it well as "The Green Knight" (2021) has recently evidenced, and as Eggers and company evidence, that they very well know this, by way of imitation, but decapitated of meaning.

The veteran talent here--Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Dafoe, Björk--is wasted on bit parts, as relative lightweights Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in the leads fail to muster a smidgen of the chemistry of even Robert Pattinson and Dafoe in the phallocentric "The Lighthouse" (2019), also by Eggers. Not exactly Shakespeare, but at least that film had a way with words, too. Here, instead, we get "I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!" Attempts to complicate or undermine that dictum get about as far here as the demythologizing, being that the picture is utterly consumed in and by the revenge myth. "Cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" stuff.

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