The Northman

The Northman ★★★

There's a cute little bit when Christians are mentioned and the Vikings are totally horrified: "Their god is a corpse nailed to a tree!". Seems a bit rich among all the beheadings, mutilated bodies and broadswords going through faces - but in fact there's a purity to this explicitly animalistic pagan culture: they're not morbid like the Christians are, they believe in animal urges and bodily functions (an early ritual has humans proving their humanity by burping and farting), and though death is important it's approached robustly; I have to die with honour on the battlefield, says the king, with the easy certitude of a CFO saying he wants to retire somewhere sunny. The bombastic dialogue ("Let this misdeed haunt your living nights", etc) is ludicrous enough to be tongue-in-cheek, but the plot bogs down badly; Shakespeare's genius in Hamlet (which was based on the same story) may indeed have been in taking the dramatically slow third quarter - when Amleth sits around waiting for the 'right time', meanwhile toying with his enemies - and tweaking it so the inertia is due to the hero's own indecision and insecurity, the 'right time' being merely an excuse he makes for himself. Here, on the other hand, he's just a lump, the violence gets increasingly grotesque, and the view of women - who range from witches (who "know men's secrets") to outright bitches - is period-appropriate but not very interesting. Visuals rock, of course, ash-white tableaux and a boy in a blood-red cloak, gobs of fiery orange in a murky Nordic grey, a spectacular final duel in the nude (!) silhouetted beside the "burning lake" of an active volcano; the 'Tree of Kings' is spectacular too. Also, alas poor Yorick, thou hast had thine eyes gouged out and tongue removed in this version.

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