O@tMedievalM: The Northman + The Last Duel

A bit over 400 years and a jump from Scandinavia to France is what differentiates these two new medieval epics. At least on the surface. But let’s delve into them to find out the real differences, shall we?

From visionary director Robert Eggers comes The Northman, an action-filled epic that follows a young Viking prince on his quest to avenge his father’s murder.

We all know Shakespeare’s Hamlet, don’t we ? I mean at last we have a gist of the story, even if unfamiliar with the bard’s opus magnum. Yes, it’s the story of Disney’s Lion King, just without all the hakuna matata business. 😉 But did you know it’s all based on an old Scandinavian legend? The original protagonist’s name was Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) which sounds suspiciously close to Hamlet, no? Both are medieval princes of Denmark … and this is already the most interesting thing about Robert Eggers‘ film. When we think about Shakespeare’s play we imagine it’s playing out in dark castles and dungeons, right? Well, Eggers set his drama historically more correct in Viking villages, wooden huts and palisades. Because in a.d. 900, the time of The Northman, the Danish were not noble knights but savage bruts. Vikings!

So Eggers consequentially stripped Hamlet of all his medieval pomp and circumstance and gives us the wildling Amleth. And he does so in quite impressive manner. His Scandinavia (and Iceland) is a snowy, icey, cold and dark wasteland. He also weaves some dreamlike sequences with shamans, Björk as Seeress, into the plot to show us the visceral believe system the vikings lives were ruled by.

Speaking of Björk, other, more famous actors also appeared in this movie in very small, underutilized rules: Nicole Kidman plays Amleth’s shifty mother, Ethan Hawke is his father, murdered by his uncle Claes Bang. The always great Willem Dafoe is also to see in a very inconsequential role, and the inevitable Anya Taylor-Joy plays Amleth’s love interest and mother of his future kids.

A word about Robert Eggers direction: I didn’t like it. As much as I could enjoy the camera and lighting and overall production value, the story itself and the characters in it, bored me to tears. Of course Amleth’s revenge story is a bloody and gory one-way-street, so don’t expect any twists and turns. But I expected a little more … soul? At least the protagonist should evoke some sympathetic feelings in me, no? But no, Skarsgard plays an Amleth with only one goal , straight and brutal revenge. He’s no fun to spend time with.

And btw, Alexander, we can see you did a lot of lifting – or CGI – in preparation for this role. And that was wrong! In a movie with a big emphasis on historical correctness your hulk-like muscle mountain stands out like a sour thumb. Men of the period didn’t pump weights at a gym, their muscles were the inevitable consequences of a harsh lifestyle, dominated by hard work. So the average viking warrior had lean, wirey muscles and was fighting quick and mobile rather than with brutal force.

CONCLUSION: Without knowing Hamlet or the Lion King in detail I was really looking forward to this new perspective on the old tale. Unfortunately did Robert Eggers only partly achieve his goal. I hear the production suffered greatly by studio interference … but that’s neither here nor there. We watched a finished product that is as it is and reminded me more on a stage play than a movie. Everybody says their lines like they just learned them.

Hubby enjoyed it more than me.

Based on the true story of France’s last trial by combat in the Middle Ages. Knight Jean de Carrouges challenges his former friend Jacques Le Gris to a duel after Jean’s wife Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape. Told in multiple “Rashomon-style” points of view.

Rashomon! Rashomon! Rashomon! If I have to hear, or read, that bad comparison one more time I’ll throw the gauntlet myself! 😐 No idea if it was director Ridley Scott himself who came up with it, his movie is a far cry removed from Akira Kurosawa‘s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon. So much so they should be ashamed for even trying to compare these two movies.

Yes, it’s Ben Affleck.

As fascinating as the Rashomon effect appears on first thought, not every story does fit into it. While in the original Rashomon we witnessed four totally different recollections of a totally different incident, Ridley Scott has us suffer thru three nearly identical versions which only differ in small details.

That’s bad in so far as we have three kinda reliable witnesses with just minute deviations in their telling of the same story. They put different emphasis on things, found stuff memorable the other parties ignored or saw in a different light. For us as audience this is very tiring. And, yes, boring. And that’s something I’d never expected from a Ridley Scott movie. Even his undeniably bad plonkers had us at the edge of our seats most of the time.

Not so The Last Duel. Not only do we know how it ends – due to internet history – here again we have a rather dark, uneventful, brooding story. Apropos dark: You know why we call medieval times the dark age? Because people lived in a small world, ruled by superstition and religion … and also because they hadn’t invented the lightbulb yet. Dark age doesn’t mean that the sun never shone, ffs! Obviously the production and lighting designers of The Northman and The Last Duel seem to think otherwise. Their worlds are washed out and bleak and no joy to watch.

Anyway, back to the story at hand and why I couldn’t enjoy it. Not only did I (hubby refused to watch it with me) the same story three times in a row, I couldn’t find any sympathy for any of the characters, and neither for the king of France (shallow idiot).

Matt Damon‘s Sir Jean de Carrouges was an uptight, boring knight with not much personality, Adam Driver, who played his frenemy Jacques Le Gris was a scheming, thieving rapist and the inevitable Jodie Comer, Marguerite de Carrouges, was the single interesting figure in this play. She, as the accuser, very subtly seemed to enjoy the sex with Le Gris a tiny little bit, eventhough it was clearly rape. At least she did so in Le Gris’ version of the incident.

Ok, Driver is clearly more attractive and younger and more affectionate than Matt Damon’s de Carrouges. So there is that little hint. It still doesn’t stop her from telling de Carrouges about the rape and that, together with Le Gris – piece by piece – taking everything de Carrouges owns, makes de Carrouges accuse Le Gris at the King’s palace and challenges him to the last official duel ever fought in France. No, the tradition didn’t die, not for quite a long time afterwards. It just wasn’t legal anymore.

Now … what was Ridley Scott thinking? Yes, we know, the lives of all three leading characters were in immediate danger but de Carrouges and Le Gris had their fates in their own hands while Marguerite had to wait for the outcome without any possibility to influence anything. If de Carrouges wins she goes free to enoy the rest of her life with her unloving hubby, if Le Gris wins she’ll be burned at the stakes. Immediately once the duel is over. A more gruesome death than being stabbed or hacked to death by another knight. But the way Jodie Comer plays her role, so cool and seemingly unburdened by any doubts or fear, it’s hard to feel anything.

CONCLUSION: If all your personnel is made up of assholes then at least have them telling wildly differing stories and give the audience some twists and turns. My recollection of the original Rashomon is a bit foggy but I guess I was watching it with baited braith. Maybe Ridley Scott should’ve watched the old, very early Kurosawa flick, too, and noticed that the story of The Last Duel doesn’t gel well with the Rashomon concept.

I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, particularly for a director that can be very good, sometimes even brilliant. But in this case a 72 years old Japanese small budget samurai flick is clearly the better alternative.

Btw, talking about Rashomon:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s