Jorge Luis Borges, who knew everything there was to know about the world of books even if he confessed to the most mortal of sins, that is to say, that he had never been happy, professed his unconditional love and admiration for Scandinavian legends and the Icelandic sagas. Unforgivably, I am not familiar with them but I should imagine that the co-writer and director of new release The Northman has devoured them. And, of course, he has read a certain Shakespeare, the person who best described in words what goes on in the hearts and minds of people. The Northman contains elements that can be attributed to not only to Hamlet, but also to Macbeth and Richard III, in service of a story with great ambition to put on a show that recently has only been achieved by the vacuous, cloned, computer-generated fluff that bears the stamp of the Marvel production line.
The Northman is directed by Robert Eggers, who comes endorsed with critical acclaim, although personally I don’t fully understand why given that I felt The Lighthouse was pretentious, pointlessly twisted, complacently violent and perfectly insufferable nonsense. The violence in The Northman is not psychological, but above all strikingly physical, with more than one shot of someone’s intestines lying on the floor. Obsessive lust for revenge drives the narrative, planned by a man whose father, the King of Iceland, was killed by his traitorous brother when he was a child. And then married his widowed mother. Over the course of two hours, which I did not find boring but not particularly exciting either, this prematurely damaged human being survives harshly in slavery, with the sole purpose of killing the man who brought about his misfortune. He also dreams of freeing his mother from the clutches of the man who destroyed his family. But the victory will find surprises full of hallucinatory power. The past is full of sharp edges. And the depraved plot twist is nicely done. The sordid reality provides a route away from what could have been adequate or conventional.
The Northman has a certain visual force and a rhythm suited to the brutality it is portraying. You can end up jaded by so many fights, from the spilling of so many guts, of ferocious confrontation. Everything is savage and primitive: severed limbs, endless blood, howls and screams. There is some relief in a love story with a present so raw it holds little hope for the future. The grim protagonist is played by Hollywood’s man of the moment, Alexander Skarsgård, one of the acting scions of the sober and exemplary veteran Stellan Skarsgård. For now, I still prefer the father. And although they are initially unrecognizable, there is a luxurious supporting cast including Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke and the enigmatic Björk, who of course is cast as a Macbethian seer. But the most convincing performance comes from the always credible Nicole Kidman. Her face may have been altered or strained by the understandable terror of aging, but her talent remains undimmed, whether she is playing the hero or the villain.
When I returned home from the movie I rewatched, for the first time in a long time, the wonderful The Princess Bride. It was no coincidence. Like The Northman, it is a tale of revenge, full of duels between swordsmen, colorful characters and a love story that destiny could not destroy. It all is delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, humor and irony driving funny and delirious situations, with the ability to capture the attention and passion of a sick child being read to by a doting grandparent. Everything in this beautiful film is imaginative and intelligent, all stemming from William Goldman’s extraordinary script. When I went to sleep, I did so thinking about The Princess Bride, not The Northman.