24 Lies a Second: Only Thules and Norses

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Only Thules and Norses

There's something oddly familiar about the opening sequence of Robert Eggers' The Northman, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was: smoke belches from the bowels of the earth into an ominous sky, thunder rumbles, and a gravelly-to-the-point-of-being-impossible-to-understand voice-over proclaims we are about the hear the legendary story of a prince and his quest for a terrible revenge in a long-past mystic era…

And I was a bit thrown when a thunderously bombastic Basil Poledouris score didn't crash in and drive the movie on through the opening credits (like an increasing number of modern movies, it doesn't even have a title card until the very end). The opening of The Northman recreates the beginning of John Milius' version of Conan the Barbarian so carefully that it doesn't seem possible that this is a coincidence – in fact, you could argue that in some ways this is the most authentic recreation of the original Conan stories brought to the screen for many years, right down to individual scenes recreating moments from the text (provided you ignore the fact the film has no explicit links to Robert E Howard's creation and is specifically set in a different time and place).

Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandill War-Raven, a Dark Ages king from Norway, who is knocking on enough to be thinking about the succession issues that will inevitably occur when he eventually takes an axe to the guts he just can't walk away from (it comes to us all eventually). He duly takes his young son Amleth down into the cavern beneath the local shrine to Odin where, together with Willem Defoe, they put on leather shorts and bark like dogs for a while (this is by no means the last unexpectedly startling scene in the movie). It turns out that Aurvandill was right to be concerned, as not long after he is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who seizes the title and also his brother's widow (Nicole Kidman).

Well, the only option left for young Amleth is to swear to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his uncle, and make his escape across the North Sea by rowing boat until he's big and strong enough to mount a decent roaring rampage of revenge. He ends up, as luck would have it, somewhere in eastern Europe, becoming a member of a band of berserker warriors and turning into the strapping figure of Alexander Skarsgard somewhere along the way.

All the howling at the moon and tearing people's throats out with his teeth seems to have distracted Amleth from his oath of vengeance, but luckily a passing seeress with a very impressive hat made of corn (she is played by Bjork, who may well have provided her own costume) reminds him of the destiny that awaits him, and obliging reveals that Fjolnir has been booted out of Norway and settled down in Iceland. Instantly deciding to get on with the whole avenging deal – in fact, so instantly one is almost inclined to raise an eyebrow, but there are many things about The Northman you just have to sit back and go with – Amleth sneaks aboard a boat taking slaves off to Iceland, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not just a slave but also a Slav. However, etymology is not key amongst the topics they discuss during the trip, just her potential usefulness to his plans and the prospects for a Scandi-Slav hook-up before the movie is over…

As you can perhaps tell, this is the kind of historical epic that Hollywood used to regularly make not very well, frequently starring people like Tony Curtis or Alan Ladd. Those old movies tended to be enjoyable only as pieces of camp; The Northman is a bit melodramatic in places but in general it seems to expect to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is possible is another question – it's certainly an impressive-looking and powerfully atmospheric movie but in its best moments it is so outrageously and concertedly over-the-top it can be a little difficult to keep a straight face while watching it.

The on-the-ball reader will already have figured out that the legend of Amleth, his dead father and his usurping uncle has already inspired not just Hamlet but also The Lion King, so it's not like we're dealing with a bold new story idea here (although the treatment is obviously different – 'to behead or not to behead, that is the question'). However, in many ways the story structure keeps on ringing bells – the treatment of a pagan, viscerally brutal world is powerful, but the underlying narrative keeps on hitting very traditional beats. Supporters of the film will probably say that this is the point – it's an archetypal story drawing on the same folk-legends that have inspired many previous writers (Robert E Howard amongst them). Nevertheless, I think it's a shame that a film which is obviously the work of people with real vision and creativity should also be quite so predictable.

That said, the kind of audience that seems most likely to respond to The Northman probably won't be going along in search of great narrative subtleties. Anyone without much of an appetite for crunching violence, heavy gore, and frequent mutilation may find the film tough going, for all that the film also has visual imagination in spades. Eggers himself was apparently a bit concerned before taking the project on that the film would tap into too many stereotypes of white supremacist culture: a particularly bonkers flavour of Caucasian hetero-normativity.

Certainly the film is striking in its adherence to a particular vision of life in the Dark Ages. All the things that usually get slipped into this kind of film when they're made by a big studio are absent – there's no comedy relief, no attempt to import modern sensibilities or present past cultures as somehow analogous to modern societies. This is the sort of thing that almost sounds logical, given we're talking about a historical drama, but it marks The Northman out as niche rather than mainstream entertainment, and potentially controversial entertainment at that.

Let's just say it likely has cult status in its future. There is a lot here to enjoy – Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in ages, and the rest of the cast are also strong; the action is often superbly mounted; and Eggers creates a coherent and convincing world for the story to unfold in. It's just that it's all a little bit too predictable, almost coming across as another head-bangingly macho action movie even though it's clear that Eggers has slightly more elevated concerns. In the end there remains a question mark over whether it's possible to take The Northman seriously as a drama, given the setting and the subject matter. Some people may be able to – but I'm not sure I can, at least not completely. But I did have a good time watching it.


Also This Week...

...David 'Safe Pair of Hands' Yates returns at the helm of The Secrets of Dumbledore, latest instalment in the troubled Fantastic Beasts franchise. One of the problems with this series is that its behind-the-scenes tribulations are rather more memorable than the actual story - but the plot this time concerns Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his attempts to stop his old boyfriend Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen, parachuted in rather effectively to replace Johnny Depp) from starting a war between the magical population and the rest of us. This involves a mixed bag of characters, some baked goods, and what resembles Bambi with a bad case of ichthyosis.

A credit like 'Screenplay by JK Rowling and Steve Kloves, based on a screenplay by JK Rowling' perhaps opens a window into some of the problems the production had to contend with, but Kloves' involvement hasn't really done enough to change the game: this is a beautiful, lavish movie, but still slow and not especially coherent, and likely impenetrable anyone who isn't already well-steeped in Rowling's world. It seems likely the remaining two films in this series will be cancelled; at the moment that doesn't feel like much of a loss.

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