The Northman Review – Revenge or Love of Kin?

The Northman Review – Revenge or Love of Kin?

When I first saw the trailer for “The Northman”, I was pretty excited. I hadn’t been expecting there to be a major motion picture about vikings to come out, and so of course I was intrigued about what the reaction to the film would be. Although I was a long time fan of History Channel’s Vikings epic, towards the end of the show (much like Game of Thrones) the original spell that the show had cast on me had all but worn out. The show descended from a somewhat historically accurate show to a boring chaotic maelstrom of unrelated events.

Being a fan of viking history in general, I was eager to see someone else’s take on vikings. However, some of the first signs were not good. Ultimately, Northman was destined to become a box office bomb. Despite the broad, general appeal of shows like “Vikings”, the considerably less blockbustery scope of Northman would prevent it from drawing a big opening weekend, or finding an audience with the general public.

Still, after seeing the other film by Robert Eggers – “The Lighthouse” – I was even more intrigued by what such an original storyteller would do with a viking epic.

Ultimately, I was not disappointed. The movie was just as weird and yet just as compelling as I expected it would be, box office numbers aside.

spoilers ahead

The Northman isn’t a Typical Hollywood Action Film

A double edged sword, Northman is not Braveheart. Nor is it really Hamlet. It’s something else. And this is both a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because watching the film gives an experience we’re not used to seeing on the silver screen. It’s a story more intense, more character driven the typical modern film. It’s a curse for the moviemakers because the greater than normal nuances involved in the plot make it less easily consumed by the general public.

In many ways, the intimacy of the story, and the lack of many large scale battles, makes this film feel more like it would’ve found its home on a streaming service, like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Also notably absent from this film is a typical hero. The Northman exists in a world, much like the characters of the viking sagas, that is morally ambiguous – morals and honor by viking standards are different than what we’re accustomed to. You can’t even really call Amleth a typical “anti-hero” because he’s got none of the charm you would associate with an antihero.

Ultimately, the “hero” of this story is a product of his time. A blond soaked avenger who for a brief moment in the film, glimpses a look at what something of a human life away from the savagery of being a viking would be like.

Themes of Vengeance Are Very Realistic for the Time

Another startling difference between this viking saga and other modern takes on vengeance is how intrinsic themes of vengeance were for people of the viking age. And although many of the brutal viking raids that characterized the viking age ended after Scandinavian countries were Christianized, blood feuds between families, like the one shown in Northman, continued to be a part of Icelandic life going forward.

One interesting distinction made in the Northman was that one could possibly choose against revenge. Although the view of fate in the viking’s mind is that it cannot and should not be changed, there is a point in time where a clear choice is presented to our hero, and he is able to redeem himself from the hatred and revenge he has pursued his whole life.

Ultimately, his final act becomes one of sacrifice, not of vengeance. Although he says that he chooses both vengeance and love for his family (love for family and honor for family being at core to the viking mind), he chooses love for family, accepting his fate and role in this sordid affair that he is a part of.

This pivotal moment for Amleth makes him different than a typical viking, or even from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He is ultimately transformed into a hero through his self sacrifice.


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