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.

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