The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The North­man

What you think of The North­man will depend on whether you’ve heard any­thing about it before see­ing it. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, its direc­tor, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a ster­ling job pro­mot­ing it that the chances of you com­ing to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how metic­u­lous­ly researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very prob­a­bly be as baf­fled and as qui­et­ly irri­tat­ed by it as I was. 

What all that painstak­ing research was aimed at was, appar­ent­ly, in giv­ing us a win­dow into what life in 9th and 10th cen­tu­ry Viking Europe actu­al­ly looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Alt­man and Jacques Audi­ard did for the west­ern, with McCabe and Mrs Mil­lar (1971) and The Sis­ters Broth­ers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film mak­er did for medieval Europe, with The Vir­gin Spring (’60) and The Sev­enth Seal (’57). All of which bril­liant­ly redraw a genre’s bor­ders to reimag­ine its parameters.

Alt­man’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The North­man doesn’t look or feel any­thing like a film. It’s plain­ly part of the music video/advertising/video game land­scape. All the physiques are per­fect­ly sculpt­ed, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and may­hem has that chore­o­graphed look and feel that we’ll all so famil­iar with and com­fort­able watching. 

We know that none of the fig­ures we’re look­ing up at are actu­al, real peo­ple. They’re just more of those char­ac­ter avatars. Some of whom get decap­i­tat­ed, oth­ers of whom sur­vive. None of which mat­ters, because the stakes are nec­es­sar­i­ly almost non-exis­tent. And the whole thing has that flat­tened, mono­chrome look that you get with video, fur­ther dulling any inter­est you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you nev­er get to hear, and there­fore expe­ri­ence, any of the phys­i­cal things that they’re sup­posed to be doing. Like, say, tak­ing a bite out of some­thing, or sit­ting down exhaust­ed into a chair, or tak­ing off a piece of cloth­ing, because all its sounds are neutered by the con­stant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Vir­gin Spring.

If you’d heard noth­ing about it before sit­ting down to watch The North­man, you’d very prob­a­bly con­sid­er it a per­fect­ly pleas­ant way to while away a stray cou­ple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mit­tle-Euro­pean dia­logue mild­ly amus­ing, rather than ris­i­bly pretentious.

And you’d prob­a­bly con­clude that Eggers was the younger broth­er of Baz Luhrmann, deter­mined to treat the world of com­ic book heroes and D&D with dead­ly earnest­ness. Unlike that old­er broth­er of his, ever ready to set­tle for the cheap­est thrill and the eas­i­est laugh.

But you’d nev­er for a sec­ond imag­ine that either were work­ing in any­thing oth­er than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audi­ard’s The Sis­ters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cin­e­ma. As a mat­ter of fact, they’re exact­ly what I go to the cin­e­ma to escape.

You can see the trail­er for The North­man below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trail­er is exact­ly how the North­man should be best expe­ri­enced. Just don’t ruin your mem­o­ry of it by watch­ing the actu­al film.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

Winter Sleep, the 2014 Cannes Film Festival winner.

Winter Sleep.

Win­ter Sleep.

Turk­ish film mak­er Nuri Bilge Cey­lan made his inter­na­tion­al break­through with the pow­er­ful Once Upon A Time in Ana­to­lia in 2011, reviewed ear­li­er here. It won the Grand Prix, the run­ner up prize at Cannes that year, and his lat­est went one bet­ter, win­ning the Palme d’Or there last year.

As with Once Upon A Time, Win­ter Sleep was inspired by the short sto­ries of Chekhov, and is in fact loose­ly based on two of them. But it doesn’t feel as obvi­ous­ly Chekhov­ian as the ear­li­er film. Rather, it is the spir­it of Ing­mar Bergman that per­me­ates his lat­est outing.

Bergman’s favourite film from his own body of work, not mere­ly the one he was least dis­sat­is­fied with, but one of the few that he actu­al­ly liked, was Win­ter Light. And it’s not hard to see what appealed to him about it. It’s his most unremit­ting­ly bleak film. And the only one of his mature films that he doesn’t sad­dle with a brief and uncon­vinc­ing coda that tries to sug­gest some sense of reconciliation.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Indeed, the up-beat beat that Wild Straw­ber­ries, Autumn Sonata and most glar­ing­ly Through A Glass Dark­ly end with are so fleet­ing and out of char­ac­ter, that you won­der whether you real­ly saw them there.

Cey­lan claims that his film is in no way inspired by Bergman. But giv­en its sub­ject mat­ter mood and title, he clear­ly doth protesteth too much. You can see why he might. Who wants to be com­pared to Bergman? He needn’t have wor­ried though. Win­ter Sleep com­fort­ably jus­ti­fies such lofty praise.

Winter Sleep.

Win­ter Sleep.

At the core of this intense, inti­mate and unfor­giv­ing char­ac­ter study are two qui­et if mon­u­men­tal argu­ments. Aydin, a for­mer actor, is now the own­er of the only hotel in an iso­lat­ed vil­lage in rur­al Turkey, mak­ing him the one fish in a non-exis­tent pond. In the first of these rows he is con­front­ed by his sis­ter, who is liv­ing there with him hav­ing sep­a­rat­ed from her husband.

And in the sec­ond, he and his younger wife clash in a mon­u­men­tal show down that has clear­ly been build­ing for months.

Melisa Sozen in Winter Sleep.

Melisa Sozen as the long suf­fer­ing wife in Win­ter Sleep.

The sti­fling sense of suf­fo­cat­ing claus­tro­pho­bia, and the strong feel­ing that you are wit­ness­ing a fam­i­ly row that you real­ly shouldn’t have heard any of are quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Bergmanesque. But in con­trast to some of Bergman’s, Ceylan’s images are as metic­u­lous­ly con­struct­ed as his char­ac­ters are com­plex. And as with Once Upon A Time, the film com­fort­ably jus­ti­fies the three hours it unfolds over.

In short, anoth­er major film from one of the few serous film mak­ers work­ing today. You can see the trail­er to Win­ter Sleep here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, Comfortably the Film of the Year

Farhadi's "A Separation"

Iran’s A Sep­a­ra­tion has just cleaned up at this year’s Asian Film Awards. Before which it had won both the Acad­e­my Award and the Gold­en Globe for Best for­eign-lan­guage film. And last year it sim­i­lar­ly tri­umphed at the Berlin Film Fes­ti­val where it first sur­faced. So there you are then. Some­times good guys do come first.

This is Farhadi’s fifth film, but his first to break through inter­na­tion­al­ly. Before which he’d worked exten­sive­ly in the­atre. So it’s unsur­pris­ing to hear him site Ing­mar Bergman as a key influ­ence in the inter­view he gives on the dvd extras, and to hear him allud­ing to Scenes From A Mar­riage from 1973. Impres­sive­ly, it’s a com­par­i­son that A Sep­a­ra­tion com­fort­ably merits.

Accord­ing to Jan Fleis­ch­er, the Nation­al Film School’s script guru in Lon­don, a well told sto­ry needs to move through five dis­tinct phas­es: Expo­si­tion, where we are intro­duced to the var­i­ous ele­ments of the sto­ry, Con­flict, Cri­sis, Cat­a­stro­phe, and final­ly Cathar­sis, as the sto­ry is brought to a defin­i­tive end.

This film illus­trates that dynam­ic pro­gres­sion bril­liant­ly. Indeed, it’s a long time since I’ve seen quite so much plot shoe­horned into to a sin­gle sto­ry. Prac­ti­cal­ly every scene turns, as yet more twists are revealed and yet anoth­er sur­prise is unveiled. Which might have proved prob­lem­at­ic, were it not all han­dled so very deft­ly, and in such a sub­tle, nuanced and all too believ­able way.

It’s a foot per­fect real­i­sa­tion of Strind­berg’s famous wish to see a dra­ma per­formed as if in front of a fourth wall. So seam­less and con­fi­dent are the per­for­mances and the direc­tion here, that you find your­self perched for­ev­er on the edge of your seat, watch­ing as two fam­i­lies descend into all too avoid­able tragedy.

Robert McK­ee main­tains that the rea­son that Bergman is one of the most impor­tant film mak­ers of the 20th cen­tu­ry is because he was one of its great­est scriptwrit­ers. A Sep­a­ra­tion strong­ly sug­gests that Asghar Farha­di has con­fi­dent­ly tak­en up that mantle.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!