'The Northman' and 'Saturday Fiction' are artful genre pictures. Your mileage may vary.
Back in 1996, writers Andrew Strader and Nick Nicholas took a mildly funny running gag from Star Trek VI to the final frontier of nerdom by translating all of Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Klingon. Because wouldn’t it be hilariously incongruous if the warlike baddies from the original series (sorry, Worf) were also super invested in the legendary indecisiveness of a broody Danish prince?
I thought a lot about Klingon Hamlet while watching Robert Eggers’s perfectly serviceable Viking revenge flick The Northman, the initial theory being that the incongruity was central to the movie never quite clicking for me. There just isn’t a lot of room for introspection and the penning of plays-within-plays when you’re busy planting an ax in some poor villager’s skull. But as ever, history’s got me beat: The Northman is based on the medieval text Gesta Danorum, which in turn served as inspiration for Hamlet, so really it’s Shakespeare who’s got things tonally jumbled.
You’ve seen The Lion King: It’s A.D. 895, and young Prince Amleth (eventually Alexander Skarsgård) learns the ways of Vikingdom from King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and knowing jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe). Enter Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murders Aurvandill but fails to prevent Amleth from slipping away and vowing revenge.
After previous Eggers joints—the surefooted, singularly weird The Witch and The Lighthouse—The Northman registers as a series of half measures. It’s never quite as self-indulgently epic as Gladiator, too tasteful and self-serious to achieve the clockwork anarchy of a Mad Max, and, for all its decapitations and viscera, doesn’t approach the delirious carnage of Apocalypto. There are notes of fantasy and magic peppered throughout, such as when Amleth has a Dark Souls fight to unlock an evil sword, only for it to… be in his head? My favorite bit, spoiled in the trailer, involves a charging Valkyrie sporting what appears to be modern day braces, but is apparently historically-sound Viking filed teeth. Still pretty metal. That The Northman never fully commits to its premise makes it a thematically apt adaptation of Hamlet, if nothing else. Egg on my face.
Set in Japan occupied Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, Lou Ye’s espionage thriller Saturday Fiction is the doom laden genre exercise I wanted from The Northman. Jean Yu (Gong Li) is an actress turned spy, ostensibly rehearsing a play (also titled “Saturday Fiction”; shades of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy) but covertly intent on freeing her ex-husband (Zhang Songwen) from Japanese custody. Or is she? It doesn’t matter. Shot in black and white and set in the early 1940s, Saturday Fiction has the look (and byzantine plot—nigh impossible for my tired, grad school addled brain to reliably follow) of a lost 1960s John le Carré adaptation, all handheld photography and claustrophobic close-ups.
The film was inspired by Hong Ying’s novel The Death of Shanghai, but what comes to mind is Don Winslow’s Satori, a Cold War-set adventure about the fluidity of nationality (it would also serve as a significant reference point for video game developer Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, likewise fixated on blurred allegiances and realities). I was a little disappointed when Saturday Fiction erupted in violence, shattering the moody, rainy atmosphere it had so painstakingly established. But the action is expertly choreographed, particularly a wonderful, small moment of suspense involving a two-way mirror. Critics have found Saturday Fiction opaque and self-reflexive to the point of alienating (it currently sits at a mixed 48% on Metacritic.com), but I admire its audacity and style. Or “guile,” as Worf would put it.
The Northman (2022)
Runtime: 137 minutes
MPA Rating: R
Streaming: Currently in theaters
Saturday Fiction (2019)
Runtime: 126 minutes
MPA Rating: No rating
Streaming: Currently in theaters (limited)