Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features
Spoilers follow for Robert Eggers’s The Northman.
It’s not that Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård haven’t kissed before or fought before. They did both as married couple Celeste and Perry Wright in the HBO series Big Little Lies. But that simmering dynamic, fueled partially by lust and partially by disgust, is a little different when said actors are playing mother and son. In The Northman, the bond between Kidman’s Queen Gudrún and Skarsgård’s Prince Amleth is key not just to the plot but also to how each individual distorts the other. One late-film exchange especially reveals their lies and delusions and, with a delirious moment of incestuous transgression, doubles as The Northman‘s (pun intended) emotional climax.
The Northman is relentlessly paced and meticulously imagined with an array of fantastical and supernatural elements that give the film its eerie potency and sense of danger: There are witches’ spells, magical swords that need to feed on blood, and a naked duel on an active volcano. But to have your illusion of a happy family and your sense of self shattered with one manipulative kiss from the person you were convinced loved you purely and unconditionally? That is the greatest wound The Northman inflicts, and writer-director Robert Eggers and co-writer Sjón wisely take their time leading us there. The scene is a culmination of what we know about Amleth – his obsessive sense of purpose, his rigid idea of justice, and his certainty that his mother needs saving. But it’s the first genuine glimpse into what Gudrún desires from her own perspective. The Northman travels in opposite directions in this scene, back into the truth of Gudrún’s past and forward into Amleth’s now altered future (as Heimir the Fool’s decapitated head tells him, “Days past and days yet to come”), and every other pairing in the film is affected by these few minutes.
The Northman is Amleth’s story, so Eggers places us alongside the young prince (played as a child by Oscar Novak) to witness the murder of his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), Aurvandil’s half-brother. After watching with him as Fjölnir slings Gudrún over his shoulder and carries her away, you can easily fall into the rhythm of the vow Amleth chants: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir. ” As an adult, Amleth learns that Fjölnir lost their kingdom to Norway and retreated to Iceland, so he abandons the Viking berserker warriors who’ve trained him in combat and poses as a slave to infiltrate his uncle’s homestead. Once there, everything Amleth sees seems to reaffirm Fjölnir’s scumbaggery: the overworked slaves, Fjölnir’s smug and coddled sons Thorir (Gustav Lindh) and Gunnar (Elliott Rose), and his sexual threats toward the slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), whom Amleth allied with during his journey.
Gudrún, meanwhile, is an ambiguous puzzle around whom Amleth shrinks and stalls. What he perceives as primness reinforces his belief that she married Fjölnir against her will and is devoted to their son Gunnar only because she lost Amleth so many years ago. He has created an unalterable image of his mother, and he takes that characterization with him into her bedchamber – where she destroys it.
For the most part, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke push The Northman as wide as it can visually go to show the grandeur and desolation of the film’s locations. But the scene in which Amleth sneaks into his mother’s room – while Olga, now his wife, uses her “earth magic” to confuse the bodyguards outside – is cramped and shadowy, its murkiness an extension of the doubt Gudrún injects into her firstborn son’s mind . Until now, Skarsgård’s Amleth has adapted to every challenge and wielded his berserker training as an aggressor; he excels at the brutal sport of knattleikr and terrorizes the farm at night. Kidman, however, nullifies that menace by adding a cunning edge to her performance, a glint to her eye, and a slinkiness to her physicality. In the span of a few minutes, she mutates Gudrún’s seeming subservience into dominance and reframes our entire conception of the character.
Kidman’s villainous roles are some of her best, and in The Northman‘s first honest depiction of Gudrún, there are shades of her self-assurance in To Die Forher calculated determination in The Beguiledand the maniacal glee she brought to Paddington. (There are similarities between The Northman and Birth‘s inappropriate kisses, too, but that’s another essay.) It starts with this look:
And it continues with Gudrún, literally and figuratively, moving into the light. Her double-edged dialogue-“Your sword is long”-only becomes more explicit when she learns that this slave is actually her long-lost son. Every choice Kidman makes in this exchange is perfectly calibrated to build Gudrún as a woman of exacting intentions and pitiless affect, from her hard stare and slight smirk to her beleaguered sigh when Amleth tells her of his oath (“I see you have inherited your father’s simpleness ”) and the unwavering tone she uses to call Aurvandil a“ coward ”and“ lusting slaver ”who raped her and impregnated her with Amleth.
Gudrún’s story is one way to unnerve her son – Skarsgård plays the moment with his mouth agape and his posture frozen – and her actions are another. The camera stays on Kidman as she drops to her knees to relive how she “begged” Fjölnir to kill his half-brother and nephew so they could start a new life together. She overenunciates certain words (“hot,” “savagery,” “untamed”) as she curls her hand around Amleth’s throat and leans in for a kiss. Is it surprising when Gudrún tells Amleth he can be her “new king” and when Amleth briefly kisses her in return? Maybe initially, given the whole incest thing. But ultimately, it shouldn’t be. Amleth has spent his entire life chasing his mother. He marries a woman who resembles her (both he and Fjölnir notice how Olga’s fair skin and blonde hair evoke a young Gudrún). And Gudrún, for her part, says this seductive strategy worked for her once before, on Fjölnir. Like the protagonist of Eggers’s The Witch, Gudrún is a woman perceived as different things to different people. She says Fjölnir loved her for who she was, while Amleth loved her for who he thought she was. But whatever drives her ambitions, her decisions were what brought her to where she is now, sparking Amleth’s quest for revenge and returning him to the family he now knows betrayed him. If all of this is fated, as the Seeress (played by Björk) insists, then her attempted seduction of her son, as taboo as it is, is preordained too.
There are still about 45 minutes of The Northman left after this scene, and the swapped dynamics of Kidman’s attack and Skarsgård’s retreat reverberate. They snap Gudrún, previously a cipher, into focus, resetting her as a woman defined not by loss and grief but by preparation and triumph. Her commands to “Shut the door” to both child and adult Amleth, construed previously as the actions of a queen following the modest rules of nobility, now seem wary, even defensive, as if Gudrún were shielding her true self. The way she wears Aurvandil’s multipronged ring now seems less like an act of melancholy sentiment than the display of a trophy. The Northman includes other figures of female strength, but they are either mystically abstract (the Seeress, Katie Pattinson’s Valkyrie Shield Maiden) or understandably motivated by matriarchal protection (Olga and her unborn twins). Gudrún, in her use of seduction and murder to get what she wants, has no such limitations. And her sureness in her choices complements Amleth’s certainty – even as they take conflicting sides.
Fjölnir remains Amleth’s ultimate enemy, but the most meaningful relationship in the film is between mother and son: It’s Gudrún who causes Amleth to briefly disavow his humanity (he proclaims himself “a hailstorm of iron and steel”) and to break his own vow never to kill a woman. In surviving his father’s acts of violence, Gudrún made him, and with a kiss, she unmakes him-a mother’s love spiked with the kind of poison that this Scandinavian legend’s most well-known adaptation, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, makes its central weapon. “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,” Queen Gertrude says in fear and shame to Hamlet. But in centering Gudrún and giving her the power in that delightfully diabolical incest moment, The Northman asserts the opposite: Mommy knows best.