The Northman

Cabots Circus, Bristol

Good God (or I suppose I should say Father Odin!) that was relentless.

Not quite sure what I was expecting. The trailer seemed to be positioning it as "the next Game of Thrones". Lots of bearded men with helmets and sheepskins. Lots of violence. I kind of expected there to be a moment when the trailer said "and his name is BEOWULF" and we would know what the film was going to be about. 

Now I have seen the film and I know that his name was AMBLETH. But I am still not quite sure I know what it was about. 

At the beginning of the film, Ambleth (Oscar Novak) is a little boy. His uncle (stop me if you've heard this before) murders his father and marries his mother, Ambleth swears revenge. He escapes from his father's killers and runs away on a coracle (I think it was a coracle: a small boat) chanting "Kill Fjolnir, Rescue Gudrun, Avenge Auvandill.) The adult Ambleth (Alexander Skarsgard) does indeed eventually return kill Fjolnir and avenge Auvandill. Up to a point. Rescuing Gudrun turns out to be more problematic.

It looks absolutely stunning. The landscape of -- I suppose -- Iceland is breath taking. Shots of our hero riding his horse against rugged glaciers and mountain-scapes were worth the price of admission. The grand finale, in which Ambleth and Fjolnir (Claes Bang) fight to the death, in naked silhouette on the edge of a volcano was very much what you wish Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker's big fight had been like. Well, maybe not the naked part, although Ewan McGregor would probably have been up for it. There is a prophecy that Fjolnir will fall at the gate of hell and they take it pretty literally.

But two and half hours of nearly non-stop smiting, in relentless detail, is a little hard to take. And I must admit that I found the middle sequence, where the grown up Ambleth hangs out with some psychotic vikings a little hard to take. 

Things notably pick up when Ambleth finally confronts his mother (Nicole Kidman). "Oh mother, thou hast my father much offended" he entirely fails to say. (Fjolnir and Gudrun are now living in exile having lost a war against someone else with a Norse name.) It turns out that far from being the victim, Mummy was the instigator of the whole plot. (She had originally been a slave and Daddy had raped her.) It all gets very messy very quickly. 

Fjolnir puts his sword through Ambleth and Ambleth cuts of Fjolnir's head in a single stroke. Fjolnir stands there without his head looking rather surprised for a few seconds before falling down. Flights of angels do not sing Ambleth to his rest, but we see him carried away through a big gate in the stars to Valhalla by a Valkyrie. Maybe the famous lost Ur-Hamlet had Hamlet and Claudius locked in single combat. The fact that it's indirectly descended from a Norse saga does rather explain the high body count in Shakespeare's play. Accidental judgements, casual slaughters, indeed. There is a fool in Auvandill's court, but he is not called Yorrick.

There are a lot of religious ceremonies. Ambleth and his father go down into a cave and pretend to be wolves. They eat bones from a bowl and belch and fart at the priest. (Didn't Joseph Campbell say that some of these ceremonies were about turning boys into men by deliberately inducing trauma? The British used sports lessons to much the same effect.) The vikings, on the other hand,  pretend to be bears. Yes, as a matter of fact I did know that the word "beserk" derives from "bear shirt". I don't suppose anyone really knows what Viking religious ceremonies were like but this felt right to me: strange and alien but not, in a racist or patronising way, "savage". But there was an awful lot of it. 

The posters describe it as This Generation's Gladiator, a film I admit to not having seen. Less kind people have compared it with the Lion King. I haven't seen that either.  A couple of time I thought of Excalibur -- endless buckets of stage blood without the redeeming mythic grandeurs. It lacked the weird comic-book abstraction of 300 although it had very nearly as much male flesh. The thing it made me think of most was Shogun Assassin: endless, artistically shot and astonishingly blood thirsty battles in which the Why sometimes stopped mattering very much. Shogun Assassin was denounced at the time as a Video Nasty. I suspect it would look pretty tame by comparison with this. 

Great beauty. Great energy. An awful lot of acting. Blood, gore, torture, violence. Art house Conan the Barbarian. Pagan Passion of the Christ. Ambleth will become Hamlet but maybe Macbeth's line about sound and fury is the apposite one? 


Thomas said...

"I don't suppose anyone really knows what Viking religious ceremonies were like..."

Thorir's burial is a recreation from a first-hand account by the Arab traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who incidentally appears as a character in "The 13th Warrior".


Andrew Rilstone said...


Thomas said...

Robert Eggers talks about his inspirations for the religious scenes: