From Viking history to Icelandic geography, "The Northman" is loaded with details. Feeling overwhelmed? Start here.
It’s rare for a new movie to open in theaters with the vision and scale of “The Northman.” Director Robert Eggers’ third feature after “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” has the same meticulous blend of period details, atmospheric storytelling, and ominous supernatural events — but it takes those proclivities and injects them into a much larger tapestry.
Produced by Universal’s Focus Features and budgeted somewhere between $70-90 million (if not higher), Eggers’ absorbing action-drama resurrects the grisly Viking era for the story of a furious warrior (Alexander Skarsgard) hellbent on avenging the death of his father (Ethan Hawke) and rescuing his kidnapped mother (Nicole Kidman) from his traitorous uncle (Claes Bang).
More than that, though, “The Northman” is a vivid tribute to the epic warrior genre that elevates it to high art. Eggers and his collaborators entrenched themselves in Viking traditions and stories that merge into a vivid sensory experience loaded with details that might seem overwhelming to viewers unprepared for such depths. If taking the plunge into this sprawling Icelandic journey feels intimidating, we’ve got your back. This handy guide to “The Northman” should help you appreciate the many layers of cinematic experiences it offers up.
David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, and Anne Thompson contributed to this article.
It’s the Original “Hamlet”
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” might remain the gold standard for stories about pissed-off princes who seek vengeance on their villainous uncles who’ve a) killed their brothers and b) snatched up by the queen and kingdom immediately afterwards. However, the Bard was actually inspired from the very story that frames Eggers’ film. “The Northman” takes “Hamlet” back to its roots.
The plight of prince Amleth has long been pointed to as Shakespeare’s starting point for his iconic play. Amleth is a classic figure in the rich tradition of medieval Scandinavian legends, one believed to date all the way back to an Old Norse (i.e. Old Icelandic) poem from the 10th century. While no actual poem has survived the intervening centuries and other versions have popped up (from a pair of 12th century Latin versions and even a 17th century from Iceland that’s more “modern”), the primary source of the story is Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus’ grand Danish history, “Gesta Danorum,” which he completed in the early 13th century. That story shares many details with Shakespeare’s play, a variety of which appear in Eggers’ film.
The film combines the plot of Amleth’s story (including its supernatural elements) with the special flavor of Old Norse myths and the “laconic” language of the Icelandic sagas. In the classic Amleth tale that Saxo details in his comprehensive history, Amleth is the son of King Horvendill and Queen Gerutha, but he’s murdered by his jealous younger brother Feng, who convinced Gerutha that the killing was a good thing. Amleth then undergoes a variety of trials and tribulations to escape Feng’s wrath — though he does not run away and join a Viking berseker clan, as he does in Eggers’ film — and is eventually carted off to Britian, though he returns to kill Feng and take over his kingdom. Plenty more happens in Saxo’s version — there’s an entire subplot about a “terrible Scottish queen” that he also woos, and a plan from his other father-in-law to off him — but Amleth remains a cunning hero to the last. —KE
Why the 10th Century?
The Viking Age as we think of it today spanned almost 300 years, beginning with a sudden Norse expansion around 793 A.D. (likely prompted by overpopulation, technological advancements, and pockets of violent discontent with Fjölnir’s enemy King Harald I, among other factors), and ending with the death of King Harald Hardrada during the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, whose demise squashed any hopes of reviving the short-lived North Sea Empire that Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard had established by conquering England earlier that century. And yet, Eggers was very deliberate in his choice to set most of “The Northman” at the start of the 10th century, when the Viking Age was already in full swing, and Scandinavians had begun to settle across the North Atlantic.
For one thing, this allowed the director — whose fetishistic approach to historical detail has been well-documented — to re-create a rich culture that had already established elaborate customs and moral codes. For another, it allowed the film to take full advantage of its Icelandic inspirations, as Norwegian-Norse chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson had founded Iceland’s first Viking homestead in 874, making the half-settled country a perfect new home for a fugitive like Fjölnir the Brotherless, who wanted to hide from his enemies while also building a new stronghold. Last but not least, Eggers likely believed that setting the film later would have been anachronistic; the oldest surviving version of the Amleth legend dates back to the 12th century, but it’s widely assumed that the tale traces back to an Old Norse poem from some 200 years earlier. With “The Northman,” Eggers decided that it was time to go back to the source. —DE
The Perspective Is Authentically Icelandic
Yes, Eggers is an American director playing with history and traditions that are not his own, but “The Northman” is very much the product of an Icelandic perspective: When Eggers jumped into creating a Viking epic, he turned to veteran Icelandic novelist, screenwriter, poet, and Oscar-nominated “Dancer in the Dark” song lyricist Sjón to co-write the screenplay.
Björk introduced Eggers to Sjón at a party in Iceland, and the mythic prologue to his witchcraft novel “From the Mouth of the Whale” made Eggers realize he had found the ideal collaborator. Sjón’s prolific output has taken many forms and genres, including the prize-winning gay Spanish flu bestseller “Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.” Before “The Northman,” he co-wrote the script for Cannes prize-winner “Lamb,” a creepy farm thriller starring Noomi Rapace that became Iceland’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar. Both “Lamb” and “The Northman” are in tune with Icelandic scenery and atmosphere as only an insider could envision them. —AT
Bjork at Radio City Music Hall
And If You’re Still Convinced, Björk’s Into It
“The Northman” may not make 10th century Europe seem like a particularly chill place to live —say what you will about modern times, but at least we’ve dialed it back on the idea of arranging human corpses into home décor — but Amleth’s journey reveals one major upside about being a vengeful prince at the height of the Viking Age: If you lost sight of your lifelong mission to kill the man who murdered your father, Björk would show up to set you straight and point you in the right direction. Appearing in her first narrative film role since her iconic performance in 2000’s “Dancer in the Dark,” the Icelandic mega-star makes a brief yet crucial appearance as an otherworldly Slavic Seeress who appears to Amleth after a bloodthirsty raid and refocuses the berserker’s attention on his errant uncle Fjölnir.
Björk’s character is shrouded inside a Slavonic temple devoted to Svetovit, the Rani deity of abundance of war, and the black-dyed barley headdress she wears — a riff on a traditional Ukrainian wedding piece — reflects that attention to the harvest, as well as her marriage to the gods. Described by costume designer Linda Muir as “the Uber-communicator for her village,” the Seeress is something of a two-way translator between men and their fates; the elaborate patterns embroidered onto her open-skirt relate the stories of her people, while the cowrie shells that replace her missing eyes allow her to relate the visions she receives from above. When the Seeress tells Amleth to get his act together and prepare to claim his destiny, he heeds her advice as if it came from Odin himself. —DE
The Camera Is a Character…
The plot of “The Northman” is fairly straightforward, and you only really need to grasp the events of the first act to get the gist of it. But that’s when the real “Northman” experience kicks in: As Amleth grows up and becomes a “Viking berserker,” raiding villages as he continues his quest for vengeance, the camera often glides through vast outdoor setpieces with the same velocity as the battling characters. That’s because Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke insisted on shooting these sequences in single takes (rather than multi-camera) to create a more engrossing experience. “We’re trying to propel the story and keep people totally immersed in the world,” Eggers told IndieWire. It was a staggering physical challenge to pull that off, and it turns the camera into a character roaming around as it unearths more and more details to the world of “The Northman.” —EK
©Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
…And So Are the Costumes
In a modern-day context, the fur-clad figures seen throughout “The Northman” wouldn’t look natural anywhere but the Met Gala. But in this setting, they’re key to providing a near-documentary glimpse of what Vikings looked like. Costume designer Muir, who also worked on “The Lighthouse” and “The Witch,” assembled no less than 918 hand-sewn garments to resemble outfits from the era. Muir conceived of these designs off descriptions from conversations with scholars, museum research, and other sources. With three settings for the movie, different costumes were designed to fit into each. They may not be 100 percent accurate, but nothing else has ever come this close.
A region near the volcano Hekla in southern Iceland
“The Gates of Hel” Are Real
In this movie, when one character says to another they’ll see each other in Hell, they mean it literally. In this case, the setting is lava-encrusted landscape well-suited for a semi-nude battle to the death. While he didn’t shoot on location, Eggers imagined the setting of the showdown as Mount Hekla, a 4,891-foot active volcano in southern Iceland. It wasn’t until the 12th century that an eruption led Europeans to refer to it as the “Gateway to Hell,” well after events of “The Northman,” but that’s one creative liberty that seemed justified given the memorable results. —EK
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