Even if you haven’t gotten the chance to check out Robert Eggers’ new historical epic The Northman yet, you’ve probably memorized the Viking Prince Amleth’s pledge of revenge that’s been featured in nearly every trailer. "I will avenge you, father," cries the young boy. "I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir." Of course, this frightened child turns into Alexander Skarsgård, who is more than capable of seeking revenge. His quest for vengeance sparks the film’s jaw-dropping action sequences.
It’s a tale somewhat inspired by Hamlet, or as Eggers has joked, the Viking version of The Lion King. The Viking on the island of Hrafnsey is ruled by the seemingly noble King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). Shortly after Aurvandill returns to celebrate his conquests, his kingdom is ransacked and pillaged by mercenaries working for his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir claims both his brother’s kingdom and bride for himself. After watching his father perish right in front of him, Amleth not only escapes his own attempted assassination but also swears that he will return to kill his uncle.
However, Amleth’s epic mission of vengeance does not go the way he expected once he grows up. He learns that in the aftermath of the takeover, Fjölnir was forced to abandon Aurvandill’s kingdom after the Harald of Norway overthrew him. He’s relocated to Iceland, where he lives with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). When Amleth finally locates him, he discovers that his mother was not waiting for him to come to her rescue. She’s deeply in love with Fjölnir, and speaks ill of both the former king and his son.
This catches Amleth completely off guard. He had expected, and perhaps fantasized, that his mother would be overjoyed to see her son had grown up to restore his childhood promise. At first, he is shocked to hear Gudrun describe his father as a cruel man. Gudrun reveals that their marriage was not one of love; she had been sold as a slave, and Amleth was conceived after Aurvandill raped her. Amleth defensively accuses her of lying, as he had never considered that his parents were any different from the way they seemed to his younger eyes.
This was a fascinating subversion of the damsel archetype that puts the hero’s journey in perspective. Similar to what he did with The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers doesn’t revisit an iconic historical period just to lionize popular mythology. He challenges the popular notion of Vikings. These were brutal, remorseless men, and hardly the fantasy of a young child. In The Northman, it's a childhood fantasy that’s literally subverted. Amleth is reduced to sputtering confusion when he hears that his mother doesn’t want to see him.
In challenging the damsel archetype, Eggers examines how overtly masculine characters never stop to consider how the women they avenge actually feel. Amleth treats each of his relatives as an object; his father is a statue of heroism, his uncle is the personification of evil, and his mother is a helpless totem in need of his assistance. Amleth isn’t trying to reach Gudrun out of compassion but in order to justify his personal sense of worth. The fact that Gudrun doesn’t conform to these expectations makes the film more interesting; as an audience, we have to reconsider our perspective on Amleth when he denies his mother’s account of her abuse.
It’s important to remember that everything in The Northman is seemingly from Amleth’s perspective. Gudrun’s revelation recontextualizes some earlier moments featuring Aurvandill. Hawke had portrayed the king as a noble, loving man who was kind to his son, and even jovial with his men. We’re only seeing him in brief moments with his fellow conquerors, and never see what life actually looks like in a kingdom under his rule. Gudrun is relatively reclusive in the opening moments, and her austere nature makes more sense given her actual experience.
During the adult Amleth’s scenes with his mother, Gudrun is sharp and hateful. Even if The Northman isn’t a straight-up horror movie like Eggers’ previous two films, Kidman’s performance is utterly terrifying. It’s worth considering how much of what we’re seeing is from Amleth’s perspective? Is he imagining her as cruel in order to cope with the truth? It’s easier for Amleth to stomach what he’s heard if he thinks of his mother as a monstrous villain.
Kidman is completely captivating regardless. She’s clearly one of the best actresses of the past two decades and has appeared in a wide variety of genre projects. However, Kidman has never had a role like this before. Gudrun is more terrifying than Suzanne in To Die For, more unpleasant than Charlotte Bless in The Paperboy, more dominant than Evelyn in Stoker, and more expressive than Martha Farnsworth in The Beguiled. While The Northman is unlikely to be a major Oscar contender, voters should consider Kidman for a Best Supporting Actress slot on their year-end ballots.
The Northman is not a traditional historical epic, in the same way that The Witch and The Lighthouse aren’t standard horror films. Eggers challenges our perspective of mythology by considering the historical factors at play, and unlike many Golden Era epics, he’s considerate of the female perspective. Gudrun is one of his best characters to date. The Northman’s commentary on the nature of revenge would not be nearly as effective without her point-of-view.