Friday 29 April 2022

Takes a pillage: "The Northman"

Three films into Robert Eggers' directorial career, and we're no closer to knowing who he is, or even whether he's as good a thing as the film bros and A24 fetishists are claiming. 2015's
The Witch was an enveloping, atmospheric folk tale, all the more effective for having been allowed to sneak up on us. But 2019's The Lighthouse was sniggering and sophomoric in every sense, a shaggy mermaid's tale pitched squarely at those excitable 23-year-old blokes who, two pints into another truly epic sesh, would readily declare it the greatest film ever. (If they're lucky, they'll grow out of it all.) Now we have The Northman, which - as you've doubtless read - is Eggers doing Hamlet, or at least the Scandinavian legend Shakespeare appropriated so as to get to Hamlet. The Lighthouse indicated that Eggers has a sense of humour, albeit of a fairly outré variety. The Northman, a morose plod that turns out to be Hamlet without the jokes, signals that this filmmaker has no sense of humour whatsoever. If it demonstrates anything of significance, it's that Eggers is another of the contemporary American cinema's meticulous world-builders; it's just that his worldbuilding is a little further out there than the average Marvel movie, and less given to ready explanation. 

Early on, the camera briefly alights on Nicole Kidman (in the Gertrude role) attempting some 9th century loomwork; Ethan Hawke (as the King) is observed dipping what looks like a primitive wristwatch into a cup filled with blood of indeterminate origin. After the latter's demise at the hands of bad brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, with incongruously puckish Billy Connolly goatee), young Amleth grows up to be Alexander Skarsgård (lucky break), vowing revenge with the help of a special sword with a special name and special rules. (Briefly, this world overlaps that of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.) In the 136 minutes that follow, there are occasional outbreaks of action - Sealed Knot-like historical recreations punctuated with the odd gory flourish (noses severed, guts unloosed), hairy men doing heinous things to one another under deathly, slate-grey skies. But there's an hour or so in the middle which finds Eggers doing nothing more interesting or edifying than rearranging the corpses amid his vast Viking Lego set. It's the first screen Hamlet I've seen that entirely gives into its protagonist's tendency for gloomy procrastination.

Which brings us back once again to the issue of what passes for spectacle in the modern American cinema. By chance, I saw The Northman in the immediate wake of catching up with K.G.F.: Chapter 1, South India's breakthrough blockbuster of 2018: more men doing what certain movies have always sent men to do, more retributive violence, another badass hero who willingly enters into shackled slavery while he plots his revenge. That film had few of Eggers' aspirations to art - if anything, it was pure commercial calculation - but it was big and flexible enough to both recognise and accommodate the fun that might be had in the process of making (and watching) a screen-filling multiplex movie. Despite its Björk cameo and a full panoply of arcane Viking rituals, The Northman is the work of a narrower, more rigid imagination, and the blood running beneath the surface of these images is cold to the point of frozen. 

The other week, a young woman got into trouble on Twitter for assuming - without troubling to see the film - that anyone of Eggers' hue who spends his days filming Vikings putting one another to the sword must be a white supremacist, or an apologist for white supremacy. It was a silly thing to say, though arguably no sillier than 90% of what gets said on Twitter on a daily basis. (Congrats on your new purchase, Mr. Musk.) Yet unlike the final draft of Hamlet, which paused only to consider how its protagonist got from A to bloody B, this boneheaded tale really has very little going on between its ears beyond violent thoughts and impulses; even amid the leaden dullness of its second act, it never stops clenching its jaw, flexing its muscles and pounding its own chest. (Its idea of half-time entertainment is a game that combines the heavy sticks of hurling with the ethics of Rollerball. Like almost everything else here, it doesn't end well.) After the larky aside of The Lighthouse, Eggers clearly wants to be taken seriously again, but hiding out in worlds like this without offering a single wink to your audience that lets us know you know you're trafficking in overwrought macho bullshit does risk opening your film up to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. 

In every other respect, Eggers is smart enough to have done his homework, coming over as a unique combination of sociopath and swot, like S. Craig Zahler with a library card. Maybe that's why The Northman has received such admiration from the same onlookers who took Dune: Part One as seriously as Denis Villeneuve wanted. But post-Dune, it's becoming clearer than ever that there is currently a battle raging for the American cinema's remaining, tattered fragments of soul. On one side: nerds who want their every movie to function like an encyclopaedia, four inches thick, weighed down with entirely the wrong, obsessive detail, something that requires anywhere between two and eighteen hours to get through, because nerds have nothing else to be doing with their days. On the other: those of us who just want the motion pictures we go to see on our rare nights off to, y'know, move - or, god forbid, elevate - a little. It's been obvious for the better part of fifty years that the American cinema would eventually be overrun and taken over by children. But did it have to be the stubborn and unsmiling ones, the ones most likely to be discovered torturing the family pet?

The Northman is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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