The Northman

The Northman ★★★

Being a woman in the era of the Vikings no doubt built character; but not enough to battle the emptiness rattling inside the soul of Robert Eggers’ “The Northman.” 

It’s for understandable reason that one of the most discussed moments of the film on its release was not the savagery of its battle sequences, but rather, the savage words of a monologue delivered by Nicole Kidman during “Northman’s” later third. In a movie that is empty, but beautiful, it is this one scene that reaches past aesthetics to achieve pathos. 

“Northman,” based on the same Scandinavian legend as was Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” could very well be called “I, Gertrude,” since its emotional core revolves around its version of the treacherous (?) queen mother. 

Shortly before COVID closed theatres for the better part of two years, I actually spotted “Northman’s” star, Alexander Skarsgård, in the New York audience for a production of “Hamlet,” starring Ruth Negga in the gender-swapped lead role. 

Much like a version of the play with Andrew Scott as the Prince of Denmark in London several years earlier, Negga’s incarnation of the character was equally chaotic as it was tragic. Hamlet was not a sorrowful wounded royal, but one frayed by the edges of either madness or sociopathy. The Prince did not so much seek vengeance for his father’s betrayal, as he seemed to seek wanton destruction for being forced to exist in a world of shadows and complications.

Queen Gertrude, in these productions, was not lustful traitor to her late husband, but a woman who had chosen to love again after her own tragedy; moving on, but halted in her tracks by the madness of her own son. 

Whether Skarsgård had this version of “Hamlet” in his mind during “The Northman” is unknown. His Amleth, consumed by vengeance to the point where he reaches a loss of self, has something of Scott and Negga’s Hamlets in him. But without Shakespeare’s immortal words to express his rage, he is left with a heart as vacuous as his mouth. So, in “Northman,” it is, similarly, to Gertrude/Gudrún, and her convincing shield of venomous truth, to whom the viewer’s loyalties flee. 

To take the words of Shakespeare’s Queen, “If words be made of breath / And breath of life, I have no life to breathe.”

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