The Northman: Psychological Fantasy, Middle Ages Queerness & Nicole Kidman’s Best Character
The General Review
Last week in my Everything Everywhere All At Once review, I said I was “no longer looking forward to” seeing The Northman. I hope most who did read it understood it as hyperbole. I have now come down from that cinema-gasm, and The Drover’s Wife has opened me up to new possibilities for cinema this year. Though I will admit that the first time I saw the trailer for The Northman, I mistook it for a live-action adaptation of Vinland Saga. Or a possible ripoff. So for a few weeks, I was a bit apprehensive about seeing this movie until I finally realised that Robert Eggers was the director. And I became even more excited a few days before seeing it when I realised the co-writer was Sjón, who also co-wrote Lamb, which was part of my top eight films from 2021.
The Northman is Eggers’ third film, and I have seen his previous two, The Witch and The Lighthouse. I love all of them almost equally. But The Northman is his biggest film yet, so it’s breaking my heart that it hasn’t made back its budget yet. Pain.
Regarding my Vinland Saga impression, there are inevitable similarities between that and this film, such as a child’s father being murdered and getting revenge. But ultimately, no, they are quite removed from each other significantly, so — nothing to worry about there.
The film is taken from the legend of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus, which also served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And the film portrays itself with a mix of being historical and magical.
At this point, I have to take it that Eggers is a mythology enthusiast. More filmmakers would have gone in the direction of leaving mythology and folklore up to interpretation. Instead, he puts this in his films to be literal. For example, there is a growing paranoia in the exiled family about the eldest daughter being a craft-user in The Witch. And by the end of the film, she embraces this, plus the family goat is Satan; all the families’ fears come true, and the religiosity behind it is confirmed. Then there’s The Lighthouse, an original film about stranded lighthouse keepers losing their sanity, but mermaids and Wake as a sea god suggest something more. You could interpret that Thomasin imagined that Black Phillip turned into Satan and that her signing the devil’s book was just a metaphor for joining the coven. And that the mermaids and Proteus-Wake were just symptoms of Howard’s madness in service of Freudian metaphor.
But I don’t get the impression that Eggers is going for metaphor. Instead, he uses symbolism to create something metaphysical in his stories.
Here in The Northman, we see Prince Amleth played by Alexander Skarsgård, interact with the supernatural. Usually happening late at night, the film uses monochromatic almost as if Amleth is in-between-worlds during these moments. There’s also the use of black magic during a conversation he has with a witch. However, witchcraft could be fake; anything that came of it was a coincidence. Then there’s his relationship with Olga of the Birch Forest, played by Anya-Taylor Joy, a sorceress though what we see her do is give their captors psychedelic mushrooms to create the illusion of evil befalling the farm. Most of the supernatural stuff in the film appears to only occur from Amleth’s perspective, except that during Olga’s last scene in the movie, in which Amleth is not present, she summons the wind. And that was after they discussed Amleth’s vision of the “Maiden-King”. So I like the fact that the otherworldly and magic involves a lot of characters and is shown to be happening outside of the main character’s vicinity.
But then there are also magical things that are clearly shown not to be the case. A little way into the movie, Amleth is advised to seek a sword that can only be drawn at night or at the Gates of Hel. The blade is guarded by a corpse, which animates as an undead creature, and Amleth fights and defeats it. This would have been the most magical moment in the movie; however, the scene pans left to reveal Amleth standing in front of the unanimated corpse and taking the sword, crumbling the sarcophagus.
I am explaining this scene because I love Eggers’ filmography because mythology in these movies’ worlds psychologically impacts the characters. And this scene is what helped me click that together regarding his other films. Something I will bring up as a recurring pattern is a difference between plot and story; how it happened versus how it felt. And I like that the makers of this film treat both with respect.
Alexander Skarsgård has a look that made him destined for this role in this movie. It’s not that he delivered dialogue in the most memorably dramatic way possible; it’s more the fact that I have to praise the physicality of his acting. His look and movements in this film are memorable to me. When he does speak in the movie, he almost always whispers, and when he does raise his voice, it’s not language but noises animalistic. And it’s brilliant and impressionable.
Anya-Taylor Joy was also fantastic in this film. When we last saw her in an Eggers film, she played a timid character who was only just becoming a witch and abandoning the puritan influences in her life. In this film, Joy is a seasoned sorceress who is very sure of herself, including sexually, due to no Christian upbringing. The range and nuances she brings to these roles are incredible. I will say, though, at times, her Slavic accent didn’t always sound convincing to me, but on the other hand, I don’t know what a Slavic accent is supposed to sound like either.
In terms of the filmmaking, I did like the use of pans. There is a long pan of Amleth and a band of Vikings decimating a village. Amleth is in most of this shot, but not always. Sometimes we just see poor villagers getting their lives destroyed. In another film, the camera would have followed the character around more closely, but showing the chaos on a broader view and the protagonist moving through it naturally, I think, was a very effective way of giving us information about his character.
Lately, I’ve been seeing films putting up title cards to indicate their stories’ three acts, which I don’t mind. But I did like that this film didn’t do that exactly but instead would put up a black screen with a title to label the new location the characters were in. I appreciated the geographic navigation as a new thing to separate it from everything else in this style department.
Sometimes, the filmmaking and editing is so good that it’s almost reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. And I do think this film is the closest we have gotten to something as good as that trilogy.
What made the story extra satisfying to me, considering it’s a prophetic story, was how everything goes according to plan even when it has to change somewhat — all of it leading to that showdown at the Gates of Hel.
Queerness and Gender Talk
The Northman is set during the late 800s A.D., hundreds of years before the massive European witch hunts that lasted almost 200 years and possibly one of the largest femicides in human history. It’s set before Christianity became mainstream in Europe, referenced by the characters horrified by the idea that Christians worship a God who is a corpse referring to Jesus. This is relevant because the way gender roles were before and after these two events is very different. So it was great to see a European film show this aspect. If you would like to learn more about these witch burnings and their historical impact, In Praise of Shadows did an immaculate video.
Not to say that men and women are equal in this movie and at that time, but just that women did have some power and higher roles shown here that were later removed due to regressive and mostly misogynistic cultural changes throughout European history.
Someone like Olga would have been considered a witch during the witch burnings due to being both a black magic user and a cisgender woman. However, due to it being a different time, Amleth specifically admires these things about her. Regarding the latter, there is a scene where Amleth’s uncle attempts to have his way with Olga, as it were, but she defends herself by smearing her menstrual blood on his face, much to his anger and disgust. Which fair, but also, he deserved it. And Amleth later compliments Olga for this action, telling her, “you marked him good”. I love that moment almost as much as the fart joke at the film’s start.
I don’t think Olga being a sorcerer as opposed to a witch suggests that she is genderqueer. In truth, I don’t fully understand all the technical differences between sorcerers, wizards, witches, mages and enchanters and to what extent gender mattered to those roles. But I do think Olga could be read as queer. When we first see her on a boat being shipped off as an enslaved person for sale, she tenderly comforts another woman. They don’t appear to be family, yet they seem to be very close. And then later, during a festivity, she is shown paired with another woman in the nude for a dance that sticks out from the hetero couplings. And when Amleth is rushing back to the dance in desperation to claim her as his wife now that he has permission to do so, he is worried that he might have been too late as everyone is seen hooking up. Almost as if women could be considered equal romantic competition for men in this time. Olga is bisexual, and no one can change my mind about this.
At the end of Olga’s story, she is pregnant with Amleth’s children, one boy and one girl. And it’s the “girl” who is revealed via Amleth’s vision to be the prophesied “Maiden-King”. Considering the role of king is reserved for assigned male at birth people and maidens for assigned female at birth people, the fact that Amleth’s AFAB child is destined to take on a title and position of both genders to me indicates that they are nonbinary.
And this is another reason I am so upset that this film is not doing well financially. It’s a good film that deserves to break even, but if it could be successful, there’s that possibility of a sequel for this character. That would have been amazing!
The actual witch portrayed by Ingvar Sigurðsson is not referred to with gendered pronouns to my memory but is credited as “He-Witch”. Though the character is not called a “He-Witch” in the movie, they are just called a witch. To my knowledge, there were just as many men witches as women witches in the day; it’s just that due to the witch burnings that mostly targetted females and only some males, this has created the stereotype that witches are women only. So I’m glad this character exists to challenge this though I can’t help thinking the character was queer somehow. I got the impression that they were in a relationship with Wilhem Dafoe’s character Heimer at some stage. Comparing those characters, Heimer’s masculinity was reminiscent of an animal, whereas the witch is still wild but a lot more reserved and maybe sassy. It’s worth noting that men tended to look down on feminine people and behaviour during that time, and I couldn’t help noticing that Amleth seemed particularly aggressive to the witch, reminding me of transphobia. Also, when the witch summons the spirit of Heimer to speak through them, the ritual reminded me of someone giving birth. They were, after all, bringing life in their way, even just for a moment.
So I know I’ve talked a lot about the film and have revealed many details, but I feel like what I have discussed so far is devoid of enough context for someone to enjoy the story regardless. But in this section, I will be talking about the main plot twist that I think would be appreciated better on the blind watch, so this is your warning. Please watch this film before continuing.
For this section, I want to talk about Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún. Nicole Kidman plays this character, and while the film was building up to these characters reuniting, a thought in the back of my head kept nagging at me. I’ve seen my fair share of Kidman’s filmography, and for a long time, she has been very good at picking her roles. So it struck me as odd that she was playing the damsel in distress.
After Amleth witnessed the murder of his father, Aurvandill, by his uncle Fjölnir, he saw the kidnapping of his mother, and as he escaped, he vowed to avenge the first and save the latter one day. When Amleth reaches the Icelandic farm where Fjölnir lives in exile, he and Gudrún are married with a son. The assumption is that Gudrún is not consenting to this. And that she is merely doing her best to be adjusted to the circumstances. So the expectation is that once she is reunited with Amleth, she will change tracks seeing an opportunity to get revenge for herself.
However, once Amleth reveals himself, she contextualises that the murder of her first husband as well as the attempted murder of Amleth was her idea, and she wasn’t screaming in fear but was instead laughing with joy as she was taken away. Her motivation for doing so, as she states, was that she was an enslaved woman who was raped by Aurvandill, who only married her because she gave birth to his son. She further cites that he not only slept around with other women but was a frequent rapist even during their marriage. And while she never says she doesn’t love Amleth, she states he was a product of rape, whereas her life with Fjölnir and their son is her preferred choice.
On the one hand, even though we never see the version of Aurvandill she describes in the film, her story is entirely plausible to me. But on the other hand, when I look back at the information we were given, I feel her story is contradicted somewhat. We never saw Aurvandill interact with other women aside from Gudrún, which seemed to be mutually friendly. However, one moment that sticks out to me was when their castle jester Heimer made a nasty joke at the expense of the Queen, to which Fjölnir had a more chivalrous and threatening response while Aurvandill tried to make peace. It’s worth noting that Heimer was murdered later, likely via decapitation. And as far as we know, all he did was insult the Queen. However, it was an insult that would rightfully be considered sexual harassment today. But still, neither of the responses was entirely justified. Maybe banishment would have been fair.
It’s apparent that Gudrún loves Fjölnir or is at least very attracted to him. Whatever the nature of their relationship is, it seems to make her happy. And it’s interesting that while we don’t see Aurvandill do the things she claims, we see Fjölnir commit them instead. We see Fjölnir attempt to rape Olga, an enslaved woman, and we get the impression this is something he regularly does and would not be a secret from Gudrún.
Once you start thinking about it, there are so many different trajectories on how you can interpret Gudrún. Perhaps she is insane, projecting Fjölnir’s bad behaviour onto Aurvandill as a cope. Or maybe she’s not insane but is just doing everything she believes is the right decision in protecting her young son.
But I prefer Gudrún’s account that she was the brains behind everything, particularly because I think it reflects what women with power might have been like in a pre-Christian Europe. I don’t think she genuinely cares about the rape of enslaved women. If she did care, she would have helped Amleth take Fjölnir down. Her reason for bringing up this characterisation of her first husband is purely in the service of her best interests. She’s trying to get Amleth to soften his convictions to protect her quality of life, culminating in her attempted incest toward him.
Keep in mind that she could still be telling the truth about Aurvandill. It’s just that she is using that truth to protect someone who is just as bad. And this is why Gudrún will probably rank very high as one of Nicole Kidman’s best characters because she gives a lot to chew on and is an excellent example of a character who could be both a villain and a victim simultaneously.
So that’s all I have to say about The Northman here. And so, to end this off, I would like to make some alternative recommendations. First, there’s the anime and manga series Vinland Saga; it doesn’t have the literal or psychological fantasy of The Northman, but it’s about Vikings and seeking childhood revenge. And the intrigue is the genuine bond formed between the main character and the man he intends to kill. And my second recommendation is a response to my character analysis of Gudrún, and that is last year’s The Last Duel.