Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
A lot of stories have a great deal of similarity to other stories. That can be accidental, but it’s often by design. There are plenty of people who had their minds blown when they realized that The Lion King is a Disney animated musical version of Hamlet. There’s no such surprises or shocks when it comes to The Northman. If you can’t figure out in the first 20 minutes that this is based on Hamlet, it’s because you’ve never seen or read Hamlet.
In fact, the story goes that The Northman is an adaptation of a story that Shakespeare used to inspire Hamlet. Much more than half of Shakespeare’s play is going to be present here—murdered king, throne usurped by a brother, queen taken in marriage by the usurping brother, banished prince, lots of death. We’re not going to have an adjunct of Polonius here, nor a Laertes in any real sense, and while there will be a love interest, the plot is going to be very different to her than Billy Shakes was to Ophelia. Still, it’s more than just the bones of Hamlet that we will be working with.
If you take the name “Hamlet” and move the first letter to the end you get Amleth, and that’s going to be the name of our prince (played briefly by Oscar Novak and then through the bulk of the film by Alexander Skarsgard). We start with the return of his father, Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) from battle. Young Amleth greets him, as does the queen, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). After a performance from the king’s fool Heimir (Willem Dafoe), we are introduced to the king’s half-brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang). That night, Heimir conducts a ceremony with Amleth and Aurvandil to prepare Amleth to eventually reign.
The next day, since we need to move this plot along, Fjolnir and his men murder Aurvandil, an event that Amleth witnesses. He is pursued but manages to escape. As he does, he sees his mother being carried off by Fjolnir, who will now rule in the place of his murdered half-brother. Amleth flees by boat, vowing to avenge his father, which is essentially what he pledged to do at the ceremony. He spends years as a berserker until one day he encounters a blind seer (Bjork!) who tells him his destiny will soon be fulfilled. He also learns that Fjolnir has been deposed and now lives in exile in Iceland.
A plan hatches in Amleth’s mind. He brand himself as a slave and steals away on a boat to be taken as chattel to Fjolnir. Here he meets a Slavic woman named Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a sorceress. He also finds a sword that he is destined to use to kill Fjolnir. The rest of the film is essentially the playing out of the prophecy and Amleth finding his way to avenging the death of his father. Along the way, there’s going to be a lot that you’d expect from a story that was used as inspiration for Hamlet, a few things that were hinted at in Shakespeare’s play, and a few other things that are completely new and surprising.
The Northman is very much a period piece, and as such, a lot of what is going to work or not work will come from how much we buy into the world. This is a very easy world to buy into. It looks a hell of a lot like you would expect a myth-inspired Icelandic world to look. It is stark and beautiful at the same time, and the culture that we are given is one of violence and terror more than anything else. It fits with the story that we’ve been given. All of the magic of the world and dark magical moments, like Amleth’s acquisition of the fabled sword he will used to kill Amleth bridges the real world and the mythic one in a way that is believable in the film.
This is also beautifully cast. I was concerned about the presence of Nicole Kidman, but she’s good in this and she also has only one significant scene near the end, and it works. Alexander Skarsgard is the right choice for Amleth. It’s Anna Taylor-Joy who is particularly good here. In such a world of darkness, she appears otherworldly.
If I’m honest, I’m a little disappointed at how much of this I was able to guess before it happened, but that’s what’s going to happen when you are familiar with the source material, or in this case, familiar with the material that was derived in part from it.
Why to watch The Northman: It’s a hell of a fun ride.
Why not to watch: It’s just really violent Hamlet.