Oh, those wacky Vikings!
BQB here with a review of “The Northman.”
It’s a story told time and again throughout Western literature – a young lad, happy as can be, a prince with a loving king father and queen mother. All is well until the greedy, conniving uncle steps in, wacks the poppa, steals momma, and absconds with the throne. Alas, the kiddo must grow up and seek his revenge if he is to ever quell the anger and resentment that broods inside him, though there’s an underlying question of whether revenge is worth it and he could always choose to run and learn to live with the injustice…but then again, he obviously can’t.
Perhaps you saw this story as “The Lion King” when you were a kid or “Sons of Anarchy” as an adult. More likely, you know it as “Hamlet,” the great-great-great grandaddy of English lit, some say the story that all stories owe their existence to. In fact, this movie is the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skaarsgaard), a scorned Icelandic royal on a lifelong quest for retaliation against his murderous, scheming uncle (Claes Bang) who killed his father (Ethan Hawke) and his fool (Willen Defoe) only to abscond with his mother (Nicole Kidman) and the throne.
On the one hand, one might find this to be a typical ancient history film. A bit long and dry, hard to connect with people from long ago, so far removed from our modern lives. Sadly, history movies are always a gamble at the box office and many don’t fare well.
However, this is different than any other history flick you’ve seen. Many history flicks add a tinge of modernity just to get the viewer through it. With any adventure into the past, I often wonder if any of us can ever grasp a true sense of what life was like in a time we never saw, that we only know about through long decayed writings on stone or parchment or second hand stories passed down through the generations.
To the film’s credit, Director Robert Eggers strives for accuracy and in doing so, shows us a world we should all be very glad indeed that we don’t live in. In the land of Ancient Iceland as well as other parts of the frozen north, life is very cheap indeed. Lowborn or lineage otherwise considered improper will condemn you to a life of slavery. Nobles feel free to kill, torture or, well, have their way with you as they please. Blood and tears are expelled every hour on the hour. Limbs and other parts are hacked off with great frequency. Animal sacrifices. Bizarre religious rituals and/or witchcraft where the practioners truly believe magical powers will be bestowed upon them if they do X horrible deed.
And don’t even get me started on the labor. Have you ever complained about having to do the launder? Ugh. Forget it. You wouldn’t last 5 seconds as an ancient Icelandic peasant slave then. Backbreaking labor from early morning to late night. Wrestling with the rock filled frozen earth just to plant a few measly crops. Fetching water buckets and carrying them to the village on your back. There’s nary an Arby’s in sight and there’s no Taskrabbit to pawn your grueling chores off onto someone else with.
Don’t even get me started on the stink and bad medicine. As you watch the lack of hygiene, you can almost smell the medieval funk and frankly, noble reader, if you were to time travel to the dark ages with nothing but the crap you have in your medicine cabinet, you would be considered a great, mystic healer indeed. What a smelly, unsanitary time it was.
Ultimately, I’d have to say that this film’s no holds barred view of a world at a time when life was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short” is what makes it memorable. Otherwise, its more or less yet another retelling of the Hamlet story. Skaarsgaard is practically a modern day Viking himself and shines in the lead as Amleth, who literally broods with neverending rage his entire adult life as his only waking thought is how he can return to Iceland and give his uncle his comeuppance.
Along the way, our hero falls in love with peasant slave Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy and unless it is a stunt tucas, you get to see her tucas in a gratuitous manner which I’m not complaining about.) Defoe is comically creepy as usual and Kidman isn’t just another pretty face as she brings some depth to a character who, well, I won’t spoil it other than to say this queen isn’t going to win any mother of the year awards any time soon.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Some great cinematography shows old Iceland as a truly desolate place, so rough that one wonders why all these dumb Vikings are fighting over it in the first place. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of Groucho’s old line. “It’s God’s country…and he can have it.”
SIDENOTE: If you ever think you have it bad (and I’m not knocking your plight, for you very well might have it bad) at least look on the bright side. If you’re reading this, chances are you were born in a country that recognizes its citizens have a basic set of rights that come from God and not government, for government given rights can always be taken away. You can’t be enslaved because you were born into the wrong family. You can’t be murdered by the people in charge or otherwise punished without a fair trial. You have modern conveniences and inventions that keep you warm, fed, and bring water to your house. Damn it, anything you want, from a new pair of shoes to a rubber chicken, can be ordered with the click of a button and delivered to you in days. And you have Arby’s and they have the meats. Don’t even get me started about Arby’s. Show me the person from today with the lousiest life you can imagine and I’ll show you a person who still has it better off than an Icelandic king from 1000 years ago.
In conclusion, whenever you feel down and out, remember you won the cosmic lottery when you were born in the Western world during a time of washing machines, indoor plumbing, and Arbys. Also, treadmills. Go run off that Arby’s ya fat bastard.
(Actually, come to think of it, no Arby’s and daily back breaking work probably left everyone cut and ripped and saved them tons of money on gym memberships so what do I know?)