The Northman

The Northman ★★

It's kind of freeing knowing that there is no Amleth urtext, and so that every telling of the legend is an interpretation of the last until the source disappears. It is hybrid and multiple, like a cumulative error that proves the impossibility of ever accessing the legend in its 'raw', originary state. Knowing this, the artist opts to translate the last translation of the legend, to reinterpret its mythic fatalism, and to account for the uneasy status of this mad ancestral fable as history. Shakespeare gave psychological depth to empty figures so we could watch them try to claw their way out of fate. (The result of course was always madness). Much earlier Herodotus recorded histories as salacious gossip, ensuring that authorial style prefigured reader access to dry data, and that these figures were always already comically human. In every case style is telling, and it's style that sets fires within the confines of mythic predestination. It's strange then with The Northman to find a work that appreciates the intrigue of the malformed fable, but finds so little to do with any of it.

Eggers' retelling avoids the drama of human agents clashing with cosmic forces, and instead attempts to 'do good' by the source material. If Amleth's world was one where fate was not malicious but was instead given the name 'destiny', then, Eggers suggests, there would be no reason for the people of the world to resist it. Watching The Northman, what we might believe to be Amleth's suicidal devotion to the Righteous Death is in fact ideologically consistent with Norse cosmology: the death of Amleth's terrestrial body transports him to Valhalla, which is where he wants to be. In light of an appealing afterlife, one's terrestrial life is only a fleeting prehistory before real history, real life, can begin. Indeed, Amleth looks at the branches of Yggdrasil and sees generations of hanged men (his father included), and receives this image with warmth, hoping to one day join them. Where Hamlet goes mad resisting becoming Amleth, Amleth retains his sanity by accepting undeath. He even boasts to Fjölnir when the latter thinks he's killed him that destiny still requires of him a few more things before the death he knows is waiting. In the film's final moments Eggers teases us with the possibility that Amleth turns from his fate to live a life we might consider good. Of course, he doesn't, because it's not written that way. The ending we get is not the one we want but it's the one that makes sense to this world, and by extension to this character. The point is that tragedy is only applied by the contemporary reader, to a text in which there is no conception of the tragic.

The Northman strips things back to the raw machinery of the fable without a source, to embrace the inexorable pull of fate minus human resistance. Beginnings and endings are flattened into the same Monadic plane, to deliver at any stage only that which is already-known. Composed entirely through monometer, ordained symmetrical shots pan or track through intermediate shots to arrive at the next ordained symmetrical shot. This unit of information fades to black, and the next identically formed unit fades in, to repeat the process until the ordained End. An image or cut of any interest would undermine the mythic fatalism of the story, and so it proceeds entirely without interest. The issue with maintaining a rigid continuity before ordained symmetrical shots is that the large gaps of intermediate imagery are both iconographically empty and formally askew. The horizons and backgrounds cannot adhere to any logic of negative space, and the blocking in the mid and fore is either pedantic or messy. Consider the arrival of King Aurvandill: as the camera pans, the white sky appears in flashes too close to the top of the frame to spatialise the scene, the houses are cramped and jumbled against the figures in the fore, and the figures in the fore are cropped across their heads and bodies to maintain the rigidity of camera movement. Worse still, they move in the same direction that the camera pans and at a slightly different pace, so half-horses and headless figures enter the frame but are never properly resolved. This lethargic surplus diminishes not only the effect of where the camera ends up, but the cumulative effect of the ordained resting shot. Battle scenes fare worse through Eggers' aversion to editing, as continuity without choreography produces amateur reenactment instead of savage immediacy. There's no compositional emphasis or articulation of meaning, just long shots of people shuffling sideways. Action and exposition work equally, through the steady persistence of images without rhythm. It's a pointed monotony that might amount to something hypnotic were it not all so dully literal.

The 'voice' of the material again mimics the kind of dry, matter-of-fact presentation of this period's records. (Having only read one Icelandic saga I won't complain too much about how they revel in the complexity of legal ritual only to come undone in fits of ultraviolence, offer detours into the lives of objects, and most importantly are really funny). The famous medieval records—Annales Alamannici—are creepily austere to the contemporary reader because they describe the minutiae of daily life minus human interest. Some readers find the mundane details of the records interesting in imaginatively constructing 'the world that was', but for most it is the very austerity of the style, which embodies the prevailing worldview of the time they were written. The stylistic absence of humanity makes it difficult to reconcile the fact that human life is being discussed at all! Like the world of Amleth that is ruled by destiny, the medieval one is where "things happen to people rather than one in which people do things" (Ernst). It's again credit to Eggers' consistency of approach that The Northman elides transcendental humanism — things happen to people, and people are willingly the vessels for things beyond their control to happen.

It's disappointing however that it's also entirely without sensorial interest. The apparently exhaustively researched sets and costumes amount to little when the mythic abstractions strip the images of grime and blood tactility. The Northman's operational emphasis on the written word put to images also means the film can never sound, much less smell or taste like anything. Not to compare this unfavourably to Hamlet, because again its ambitions are polar opposites, but even without the human madness of the story there's the play of sounds and rhythms and smells that makes it intoxicating whatever the level of audience involvement. The Northman does blood without violence, pregnancy without sex, it ends without arriving. Of course this is the stuff of the terrestrial reality Amleth's mythic ambitions are always looking past — it's as though the Valhalla picture might command some sort of interest, but this picture by nature can never arrive. Its ambitions, and the picture, are staggeringly anaemic.

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