The Northman got a lot of attention when it was released, mostly because the usual suspects were scandalized by the lack of diversity. There are no black people in the film and the protagonist is a man. Worse yet, the female characters are feminine and the male characters are masculine. There are no homosexuals, transgenders or people speaking truth to power. In other words, a crime against the faith.
Of course, this became the story rather than the fact it is one of the best made moves in the last ten years. It is a film made by adults for adults, which has become such a rarity that reviewers struggled to describe it. Compounding it, the film requires some cultural literacy, which is rare among the movie reviewing community. Most of the reviewers think comic books are adult literature.
The Northman is a classic tale. A wronged man commits his life to getting revenge on those who wronged him. He sets out on a journey to exact his revenge, but the journey turns into something else. The black and white world of his imagination gives way to the moral ambiguity in which all of us exist. The story of revenge becomes an exploration of the deeper themes that define the human condition.
In this film, the story is based on the legend of Amleth, which comes from Scandinavian sources that have been lost. What we have comes from the Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century Danish theologian. Amleth is the young son of a king. He sees his father killed by his jealous uncle, who takes both the crown and his brother’s wife. The son escapes only to return as a man who then gets his revenge on his uncle.
That is pretty much it for the plot of The Northman, but that short trip is one fantastic ride that reminds you that movies do not have to be lectures. They can be incredibly well done stories that leave the viewer thinking about the larger issues raised in the movie, but never explicitly mentioned. That is art. It holds a mirror up to you and your world so you can see things from a different perspective.
It is fair to say The Northman is art. We see Amleth as a young boy, full of curiosity and wonder until he witnesses the murder of his father. Next, we see him as a fully grown man, but more beast than man as his rage makes him a killing machine. We are left to guess what happened to make him into a berserker, but in a few minutes, we have two important plot points of his character arc.
Amleth takes part in a raid in the Kievan Rus and after the fight, he meets a Seeress who tells him that he will take his revenge on his uncle and that his path is intertwined with a Maiden-King. Now we have an important element. Amleth is not just a man on a revenge quest, but a man following his destiny. He no longer has a choice and must wrestle with this as he sets off on his journey.
This is not something you expect to see in a modern movie. Instead, it would have been filled with emotive exposition. Half the film would have been taken up explaining the back story and his emotional state. This film assumes you are mature enough to fill in the blanks and understand the bigger meaning of the story. This is not just a story about a man, but a story about man and his relationship to the world.
One of the clever things about the film is that it blends the dreams and visions with the live action in such a way that you are not always sure if what you are seeing is real or the imaginings of the hero. Toward the end, Amleth faces his mother and comes to realize her role in his father’s death. The way it is shot suggests it could be all happening in his head rather than in the real world. You cannot be entirely sure.
What really makes this movie stand out is the bigger themes. Amleth starts as a man with a lust for revenge. Then he learns that he will get his revenge, but that it is part of a bigger story of which he is only one part. His struggle is in accepting his fate and fulfilling his destiny, even when he seems to have other options and it comes at some cost to those he loves.
This is a theme that comes up often in our literature. If man can have a destiny, does he have free will? If you cannot escape your destiny, then why think at all about the choices that are presented to you? On the other hand, if your revealed destiny is one of many possibilities, are you obligated to fulfill it? Is the revelation part of the calculus or is it a challenge?
This gets to the biggest question of all. What is the point of life? Is it better to live a long and unimportant life or live a short and consequential life? Would you rather die a broken down old or die a young hero? Our nature is to live, but to live for what? This is the choice presented to Amleth. He could have remained a berserker. He could have abandoned his quest for revenge for a simple life. He could accept his destiny.
The Northman is about the oldest questions of human existence. What is the point of our lives and how should we use the time we have? For men, the choice is always between the long quiet life and the short exciting one. If it were only up to men, the latter would be the easy choice, but men cannot be men, or even exist, without women and women naturally want a man to choose the former.
That is what makes The Northman a great film. It presents a classic tale in a way that allows the intended audience to think about the big questions. It is not a lecture or an escape from reality, but a well told story. It is up to the adults in the audience to make of it what they will. That is probably what upset the critics. They no longer have the adult capacity to appreciate this film, so they flung their poo at it.
If you like my work and wish to kick in a few bucks, you can buy me a beer. You can sign up for a SubscribeStar subscription and get some extra content. You can donate via PayPal. My crypto addresses are here for those who prefer that option. You can send gold bars to: Z Media LLC P.O. Box 432 Cockeysville, MD 21030-0432. Thank you for your support!
Promotions: We have a new addition to the list. Havamal Soap Works is the maker of natural, handmade soap and bath products. If you are looking to reduce the volume of man-made chemicals in your life, all-natural personal products are a good start. If you use this link you get 15% off of your purchase.
The good folks at Alaska Chaga are offering a ten percent discount to readers of this site. You just click on the this link and they take care of the rest. About a year ago they sent me some of their stuff. Up until that point, I had never heard of chaga, but I gave a try and it is very good. It is a tea, but it has a mild flavor. It’s autumn here in Lagos, so it is my daily beverage now.
Minter & Richter Designs makes high-quality, hand-made by one guy in Boston, titanium wedding rings for men and women and they are now offering readers a fifteen percent discount on purchases if you use this link. If you are headed to Boston, they are also offering my readers 20% off their 5-star rated Airbnb. Just email them directly to book at firstname.lastname@example.org.