The Northman is a 2022 tale of revenge that starts off with a familiar plot before the movie delves deep into the religious and mythological aspects of Vikings. Inspired by the folktales of a certain Prince Amleth, the film quickly helps viewers realise that it is taken from the very same source material that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
From everyone’s in-real-life favourite Viking descendant Alexander Skarsgard to starry names like Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Anya-Taylor Joy, Willem Defoe and even a quick little cameo by Bjork, The Northman boasts a strong cast.
Directed by Robert Eggers of The Witch fame, they create a sordid tale full of love and hate, primal rage and revenge with sprinkles of fantasy and supernatural that will have the viewers wondering if it is all in Amleth’s head or not.
The Northman Plot Synopsis
The Northman starts off with a young Amleth excited to welcome his father home, King Aurvandil, the War Raven (played by Hawke) who comes bearing gifts and much more. With a fatal injury that numbers his days, he prepares his son to take revenge by embodying the spirit of a wolf. They meet the priest Heimir (played by the enigmatic Willem Defoe) who warns Amleth of his rage-filled future.
On their return home, the father and son are ambushed by Aurvandil’s half-brother, Fjolnir (played by Claes Bang) who kills the injured King and takes his place. His guard tries to kill Amleth and lies to Fjolnir that his target is dead while the young prince escapes and watches Fjolnir take his screaming mother with him. He vows to avenge his father, kill his uncle and save his mother as he rows to the distant land of Rus.
Now years later, Skarsgard’s Amleth who calls himself Bjornulfr has joined a tribe and leads their raiding parties. He meets a seeress who reminds him of his revenge plan and that he needs to travel to the edge of the world and get a sword for his revenge. Upon hearing that some of the slaves they have caught will be sold to Fjolnir who has now run off to Iceland after his kingdom was conquered by Norway’s Haraldr, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and joins them.
On the way, he meets Joy’s Olga, a slave who wants to strike a partnership and escape Iceland. Upon their arrival, Amleth, who is only fuelled by his revenge is shocked to see his mother, Queen Gudrun played by Kidman, alive and now wife to Fjolnir. He believes that his mother is only pretending and picks up his pace to get revenge after which he can save Gudrun.
How does Amleth get his revenge?
Amleth comes across a priest who guides him to Draugr, the undead sword, guarded by a skeleton warrior. He then bides his time, working as a slave, pretending to be loyal and saving Gunnar, Gudrun’s son with Fjolnir from almost being killed during a match with a rival tribe. Emboldened by Olga – whom he falls for – Amleth decides to take action. He secretly starts killing soldiers and a priest to torment Fjolnir who thinks his island is plagued by a spirit. On one fateful night, Olga mixes poisonous mushrooms in the food which leads to the soldiers hallucinating and killing themselves.
In the chaos, Amleth goes to save his mother only for Gudrun to reveal that she was never a prisoner. She, in fact, had asked Fjolnir to kill Aurvandil and Amleth as the former king never loved her. An enraged Amleth kills Fjolnir’s oldest son Thorir and steals his heart. He is caught and tortured but he escapes with the help of Olga who is pregnant with his twins. Worried about his new family’s safety, Amleth refuses to leave with her without killing Fjolnir who would otherwise hunt his unborn children. Olga is sent to Orkney while Amleth returns for one final battle.
He sets Fjolnir’s slaves free and as they serve as a distraction, he barges into his uncle’s home. Gudrun and Gunnar attack him from the back and he kills them accidentally which he regrets. Fjolnir challenges him to a duel at the gates of Hel which is the inside of an active volcano. When Amleth is almost about to lose, he attacks with renewed vigour and chops off his uncle’s head in one strike.
While Fjolnir falls, it is seen that he gets in one last blow as his sword pierces Amleth’s heart. A dying Amleth smiles as he realises he’s avenged his father, freed his mother from hell on Earth, created a safe world for his children and is about to enter the gates of Valhalla. The Northman ends with a Valkyrie flying Almeth to the afterworld.
What was Gudrun’s plan?
If three-quarters of the movie unfolded at a calm pace just like Amleth planning his revenge, the last bit of The Northman is as chaotic as the execution of the former prince’s plan. Amleth’s plan was simple and easy enough for him to follow, but a wrench gets thrown in as he doesn’t consider his mother’s part in the whole betrayal.
Turns out that it was Gudrun who told Fjolnir to kill her husband and son as he was the one who actually loved her. She reveals that Aurvandil only tolerated her for bearing a son. She was a slave as well and it was only because she became pregnant with Amleth after being raped by the king that Aurvandil made Gudrun his queen.
This was seen at the beginning of The Northman as well when Aurvandil easily brushed her aside despite not seeing her for months while Heimir noticed her being excited when she saw Fjolnir. Even the scene where Amleth saw his mother screaming after Aurvandil was killed was a misunderstanding as she shares that she was actually laughing and celebrating with Fjolnir.
Gudrun reveals herself as the master puppeteer as she used all the resources in her power to control the men and better her situation. She plays the same tactic on Amleth as she realises if he kills Fjolnir she will be powerless. And so she offers herself to Amleth as his queen if he were to take her.
What she doesn’t take into account is Amleth’s naivety as he is aghast at his own mother’s treachery and her willingness to go as far as to employ an Oedipal strategy and participate in incest to stay a queen. And while he is shocked, angry and confused, he still loves his mother and mourns her death as he promises to meet her in the afterlife.
But no one truly knows Gudrun as she is even more of a grey character than the mother in Hamlet, continuing with her plans to secure her position. Whether it is to betray Amleth and tell Fjolnir that her firstborn killed Thorir, or to order the guards to kill him and Olga for aiding him. Even in the face of death, she doesn’t stand down as seen by the way she attacks Amleth despite Fjolnir telling her to hide. Like the Viking men, she’d rather fight and die and enter Valhalla, the afterlife for warriors than live as a slave or die in a treacherous way.
In fact, when she thanks Amleth for stabbing her, he realises that this was the only way he could save his mother and complete his mission of avenging his father, killing his uncle and saving his mother. In the final scene, when he lies dying, he smiles as he sees a Valkyrie taking him to the afterlife and reuniting with his family while making the world safe for Olga and his unborn children, one of them becoming the queen of her kingdom.
Psychological or fantasy?
While The Northman begins as a historical action film, things take a turn when Heimir, the priest is introduced and the characters dive headfirst into the world of Norse mythology. While the viewers still have doubts if any of it is real thanks to the hallucinogens that Amleth drinks to see the Tree of Kings, Eggers plays more mind games with his viewers as he starts tearing down the veil between natural and supernatural. The Northman titters between a fantasy film and a psychological thriller, as Amleth’s visions that guide him feel more and more real.
While the Rus celebrate their raid, Amleth meets a seeress who reminds him who he is, and his revenge for his father and then disappears. She predicts the volcanic fight as well as his meeting with Olga and his unborn daughter’s future. Amleth too sees similar visions as he travels to Iceland and sees the ship going towards the Tree of Life, a hint that his journey on Earth will end on the island.
When he comes across a berserker priest, a murdered Heimir comes back to life and tells Amleth how to get Draugr the sword which can only be unsheathed at night or at the gates of Hel. Amleth envisions a fight with the warrior soldier guarding Draugr only to realise it’s happening in his mind as the skeleton crumbles upon a touch.
The movie also employs Shakespeare-like monologues as Amleth decides to postpone his revenge and instead torment Fjolnir. Eggers uses this to further fill doubt in the viewer’s mind as to whether the fantastical and supernatural scenes are all part of Amleth’s imagination or real.
The argument that the magical actions are all part of Amleth’s mental anguish is further amplified as Olga, a self-proclaimed witch uses something as simple as poisonous mushrooms to make the guards hallucinate while Fjolnir thinks they are possessed by night spirits. The seeds of doubt keep growing as Olga squashes Amleth’s fantasy that Odin, his ravens and his Valkyrie saved him when he was tortured only for her to reveal that she was the one who carried Amleth and helped him escape.
But the uncertainty is what adds nuance to the film as there are aspects that suggest supernatural forces in play. When a guard tries to unsheathe Draugr in the daytime, he is unable to do so while Almeth easily does it at night just like Heimir told him he could. At Thorir’s funeral, after Fjolnir vows to kill Amleth and visits his cell, he sees that his prisoner has escaped. But there are ravens making him wonder if Odin did help Amleth.
And when Olga and Amleth plan to travel to Orkney he has a vision that she’s pregnant with twins and realises they will never be safe till Fjolnir is dead. With the gates of Hel being fiery, it adds poignancy that the two warriors fight inside an active volcano which they believe is the real gate. His dying vision of his children and his entry to Valhalla could very well be a result of his satisfaction with finishing his mission or a reality as both endings give him a happy ending after a life of tragedies.