Watching a beefed-up Alexander Skarsgard stride shirtless, long blonde hair flowing, ax in hand, into battle in The Northmanit’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons with Thor and his buddies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Both draw on old Norse sagas – legend in the case of Robert Eggers’ film, myth in the case of Thor – and both feature references to gods and Valhalla and honor. Where they part, though, is in the seriousness with which they treat that source material.
Marvel maestro Stan Lee took liberties when he created his Thor back in the early 1960s, choosing elements that sat comfortably within the grander universe he was creating, in which superheroes kept humanity safe from external and internal threats.
“Marvel’s Thor is a noble hero any of us would feel safe around,” writes Matt Adler on ifanboy.com in a piece exploring the similarities and differences between Marvel and Norse mythology. By contrast, “the Thor of Norse myth is a fierce warrior with a violent temper, who seems to revel in the slaughter of any who would challenge him.”
In The Northmanthe hugely ambitious third feature from the writer-director of witch and The Lighthouse, Amleth (Skarsgard) is cut from the same cloth as the Thor of Norse myth. He’s a bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking killer whose righteous sense of mission frequently becomes indistinguishable from straight-out psychopathic rage.
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Eggers admitted he was a comic-book fan in his early years before being lured by the much darker vision of Albrecht Durer’s medieval woodcuts. “That is when I almost literally, but certainly metaphorically, put away my comic books and became a snob and a dilettante,” he said. “The sea creatures and the satyrs and the wild men and the demons did kind of put Marvel to shame, in my eyes.”
The movie-going public’s obsession with comic-book characters is, he tells me, evidence of a modern-day form of pagan worship. “The cult of Marvel is unconsciously a religion. People wish to reach the sublime without having to suffer or think.”
His work, though, offers little easy reward. Each of his three features nudges at a realm beyond our everyday relationship with the world, but accessing it comes at great cost – certainly to his characters and, some might suggest, also to the viewer (I should confess here that I think each of the films, including The Northmanis superb, teetering on the edge of the ridiculous while coming awfully close to the sublime).
witch (2015) starred Anya Taylor-Joy as a teenager in the Puritan New England of 1630, who is suspected of being, and eventually comes to believe she is, a witch. It features a talking goat, which may or may not be an incarnation of Satan, and may or may not be a hallucination.
In The Lighthouse (2019), a young keeper (Robert Pattinson) goes slowly mad while sharing confined living quarters and copious amounts of alcohol with his superior bullying (Willem Dafoe). But a sexual encounter with a mermaid does at least provide a brief moment of fishy solace.
now, in The Northman, Eggers again strives to show us the objective material world and the subjective supernatural at the same time. We see the squalid and brutal living conditions of the Vikings alongside the altered psychic states of Amleth; encounters with sorcerers, seers (including one played by Icelandic pop legend Bjork) and giant ghostly skeletons are all presented as if real (in his mind de él) and not-quite (from the authorial point of view), often in the same shot .
It’s a tricky balancing act, and Eggers readily acknowledges the risk involved.
“I think it is hard to make an undead mound-dwelling warrior believable,” he says, referring to one of the heightened sequences in his film. “Coming from an art-house sensibility, you would never show it as if it was real.
“It can be challenging, but we just try to do it in some kind of a grounded way. So the way we show Valhalla, it looks like it could be some kind of spectral occurrence that could happen in nature. Showing the supernatural thing you always run the risk of diminishing its power.”
The ambition of Eggers and Skarsgard (who initiated the project) and Icelandic writer Sjon was to make “the definitive Viking movie”. That meant going to the source material, the 10th century tale of Prince Amleth, whose father (played here by Ethan Hawke) is slain by his uncle (Claes Bang), who then weds his mother (Nicole Kidman). The young prince witnesses the crime, goes into hiding, and as an adult sets out to exact revenge.
That tale was first set down by Danish author Saxo Grammaticus in the early 14th century, and became the source material for Shakespeare’s Hamlet 300 years later. But while Eggers’ previous films ended with acknowledgments of the historical records from which much of their dialogue was plundered, The Northman does not.
“If, like Mel Gibson, I could self-finance my own large historical epics, then there probably would have been a credit like that because I probably would have drawn directly from Old Norse texts,” he says.
But this version is in English, and it’s a new telling of an old tale. But the quest for authenticity animates it just as much as it does his earlier work.
He cites the case of witch to illustrate his thinking. “Thanks to Victoriana and Wizard of Ozwhich I love, and Halloween decorations and American commercialism and Hocus Pocusright down to Harry Potter – which is great for a whole lot of other reasons – the witch lost her mojo,” he says.
But the witch of the 17th century was, in a very real sense, “a completely terrifying idea”, and through intensive research into contemporary records he wanted to “go back to understand why this archetype existed in the first place, and why she took hold of the imagination of the early modern period as this horrible thing that was so frightening to people that they were murdering all these innocent women, and some men, because of this fear. That idea needed to be not reinvented, but rediscovered and recommunicated.”
To recommunicate the world and worldview of the Vikings, Eggers had a $US65 million budget to play with (the final cost of the film was reportedly $US90 million). That made it possible to try things he had n’t before, but he concedes it also meant he was often out of his depth.
“Now,” he says wryly, “I have the experience to make the film I just made.”
As for what sort of film that is, he says he may not be the best person to assess.
“I never set out with an agenda, I just try to completely immerse myself in the world and present it without judgement,” he says. “But eventually society tells you what’s going on.
“I didn’t intend to make a feminist movie with witch. Not a big surprise, in hindsight, that’s how it’s interpreted. I didn’t intend to make a movie about toxic masculinity with The Lighthousebut again, not a big surprise that’s how it’s interpreted.”
The Northmanhe says, is “a story about a sophisticated, technologically advanced culture that trades all over the world and has made the world a smaller place and yet it’s completely consumed with brutal violence”.
It will be up to viewers to decide if that’s solely a tale about a 10th-century Norse legend, or one that speaks equally to our time.
The Northman is in theaters from April 21.
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