Film blog: The Northman
As the lights re-emerged to our squinting pupils, it seemed as if the audience did not so much as utter a syllable. The last two hours and seventeen minutes of hyperviolent, atmospheric, supernatural, and occasionally bewitching cinema left the audience with little to say. When my friends and I finally mustered the wherewithal to articulate some feelings about the film, we came to a consensus that what we watched was unique, unsettling, and of a rare type of quality in which the Venn diagram of big money and indie weirdness hit the sweet spot.
The Northman is the latest in visionary director Robert Eggers’s historical ‘it must reek in there’ line of work, telling the story of the Norse myth that inspired Hamlet, namely that of Amleth, and his fated quest to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill (his uncle) Fjölnir after the latter murdered his father and took his kingdom. Eggers’s research for the film was meticulous to say the least, co-writing the script with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón, and utilising the very best in expert archaeologists and medievalists to achieve optimal historical accuracy. From the smoking of hallucinogenic herbane seeds at regal rituals, to the use of materials such as nettle fabric and reindeer leather in the film’s costume department, the commitment to authenticity is instrumental in the construction of an immersive and atmospheric Viking world. So, when the audience is transported from a rural Icelandic valley to the precipice of a volcano, you never find yourself questioning the film’s grounded sense of place.
At the risk of sounding like an overeager undergrad who just finished reading the whole of k-punk and won’t stop blathering on about the innate radical-political potential of popular culture, The Northman’s immersivity is also evident in its portrayal of the erratic social and economic structures of the time. The film’s plot hinges on the idea that one can descend from prince to pauper at the tip of a sword; that the strongest and most powerful of Kings need always be watching the shadows for the next tribe of bandits that may be that one iota faster, stronger, and deadlier.
This sense of social disorder is testament further to Eggers’ commitment to particularistic realism, as in Iceland; where most of the film takes place, the social structures were unique compared to other Viking settlements in places like Scotland and Orkney. In his article ‘Social Structures and Identity in Early Iceland’, historian and linguist Stephen Pax Leonard contends that Iceland was a social outlier in the Viking world. With “no kingship or any other single leader in Iceland, no courtly culture, no feudal system of land ownership” and a polity founded on “a decentralised distribution of power and a corresponding emphasis on the integrity of the individual”, it’s clear that the setting of Iceland as the northern mobocracy and anomaly to the aristocracy and regimentation of the other southerly Viking states, is a very deliberate choice.
The chaos of Eggers’s social world is felt throughout, from the descent of Amleth as heir to his father’s throne to his slave in the Rus, to the film’s dramatic (and actual) high-point, as Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún reveals to her son that his journey to liberate her from Fjölnir has been pointless. When mother and son confront each other for the first time in years, Queen Gudrún reveals that she never married the King willingly, but was bought by him as a slave, before he raped and abused her as another piece of property in his kingdom, giving birth to Amleth as a result and becoming Queen thereafter. That the film’s gaze carries us through Amleth’s journey; from witnessing the murder of his father, to his enaction of violent chaos in Fjölnir’s camp, all before pulling the emotional carpet of revenge and destiny from underneath Amleth and the audience’s feet, is testament to Eggers’s attention toward the social pastures and real feeling of living and dying in the Viking world, and does more for its realism than any obscure archaeological detail could.
It's these overtures into obscure and isolated corners of history; the ones that make you glad of your own modern existence and comfort, that Eggers so specialises in. Elucidating worlds of berserker Viking warriors for hire wreaking havoc on unsuspecting villagers in this flick, to the isolated psycho-masturbatory episodes of lighthouse keepers in 1890s New England in The Lighthouse, it’s Eggers’s ability to make humans seem akin to a strange and otherworldly alien race that marks his identity as a filmmaker. In many ways his features are a form of modern sci-fi horror, substituting intergalactic Xenomorphs and predators for the historical horrors of violent conquest and benevolent spirits; asking the audience to ponder on the real inherent stability and good at the heart of humankind across the eons.
Yet, like all films, his work; and particularly The Northman, can’t escape their resonating with contemporary social and political messages. There were some concerns that a Viking film which unabashedly embraced motifs of extreme violence doled out by hypermasculine grunting warriors, and depictions of unemotional and monoracial sexual relationships that wouldn’t look out of place in the darkest corners of 4chan, may well present the film with some problems. Critic Steve Rose gave an extensive account of far-right analyses of popular culture in an analysis of The Northman for the Guardian, pointing out that films that deal with far-right fodder like The Northman need to be created with the possibility of co-option at the front of their minds, and that “if the far right doesn’t hate your film, you might be doing something wrong.”
While I tend to disagree with Rose’s account, his musings tee up some valuable questions. Understanding that some art’s unconscious messaging may contain certain ingrained biases around race, gender or sexuality is important, and simultaneously recognising these hidden values shouldn’t trigger an automatic condemnation of said art as the sole preserve of the far-right. Alternatively, such critical assessments sharpen our eye towards expressions and tendencies in film that may tip towards unsavoury political attitudes, ensuring we have the intellectual ability to dissect malign ideological influences in art when they do rear their ugly heads.
This debate was exemplified by a recent online furor over another popular filmmaker and their work, Wes Anderson. In a (deliberately) provocative tweet feminist academic and family abolitionist Sophie Lewis argued that Anderson’s latest film The French Dispatch represents a sea change from his earlier work of “an apolitical world of winking whiteness” towards a film of “fascoid trivializing of struggle and active investment in the carceral state.” This in turn triggered a collective raised eyebrow, as many suggested that to essentialise a film depicting American journalists in France waxing whimsy about art dealers and haute cuisine as blood and soil fascism, was a little rich.
While I tend to agree with this angle, I think that like the debates around the co-option of Viking aesthetics of The Northman by the far right, these discussions around the values implied or otherwise in seemingly politically innocuous works, are important. In a world of cinema and popular criticism that is so often positively unintellectual and rarely introspective, it is vital that we take criticism beyond a simple four-star op-ed in a national broadsheet, and towards the biggest social, political, and philosophical questions of things like justice, representation, and meaning. It will never be easy to turn the mirror on one’s own likes; recognising some problematic implied values from your favourite indie flick is much akin to an awkward read through of your hangover-addled and lucozade-fuelled first year essays on Kant’s categorical imperative. Your changing opinions, thoughts and feelings remind you of how far you’ve come, forcing you to reconsider your own ideas, values, intellect, and ultimately what you deem to be sound analysis. In short, defending Anderson, Eggers or any filmmaker or artist as if they are akin to the second coming is a lazy exercise; alternatively, recognising that something may be both enjoyable and represent some queasy unconscious biases is a sure fire sign of a secure and healthy mind that is comfortable with taking the piss out of one’s self, but also needn’t descend into lazy and simplistic accusations of genuine and sincere hate on the part of the artist.
While this segment or blog has never been a regular output, I’m keen to make it so. I’m thinking of piloting a weekly or fortnightly film blog series, in which I watch and review films both new and old, and tie in a form of social or political analysis in the spirit of this blog’s original rallying cry. Be sure to use the contact form on the main page and give me some suggestions for films to watch, or don’t at all! Thanks for reading.