February 8, 2023



Robert Eggers evokes medieval Iceland in “The Northman”

4 min read

To watch a film by Robert Eggers is to be transported to a bygone era. His fastidious attention to detail, language and atmosphere helps immerse viewers in unfamiliar settings with premodern beliefs. Mr Eggers’s debut feature film “The Witch” (2015) takes place in New England in the 1630s, a time of Puritan pilgrims and sinister occult forces. Malevolent spirits also afflict the marooned characters in “The Lighthouse” (2019). Visions of mermaids and the dead drive the two keepers, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, to the brink of insanity. “The Northman”, Mr Eggers’s newest offering, is a primal revenge thriller similarly tinged with witchcraft. Set in the 10th century, it follows an enslaved Icelandic scion seeking to avenge his father’s murder, as prophesied by a seeress.

“The Northman” represents a daunting leap forward for the 38-year-old American film-maker. It cost in the range of $70m-90m—several times the budget of “The Lighthouse”—and boasts an impressive cast that includes Alexander Skarsgard, Anya Taylor-Joy (Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit”), Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and, briefly, Björk. Still, in a recent interview with The Economist, Mr Eggers appeared in his usual uniform of black, sporting signet rings and a groomed beard. His manner veered between bookish and boyish.

He explains that he rejected the brutal glory of Viking stories at first: “I find the whole thing pretty disgusting—I like Vikings in spite of their violent culture.” Why, then, is “The Northman”, co-written with Sjon, an Icelandic author and poet, concerned almost entirely with a vengeful quest? The film’s main character, Amleth (Mr Skarsgard, pictured), repeats his deadly intentions like a mantra and slaughters his way to a bloody showdown with his uncle, King Fjolnir. “‘Vengeful’ is not a go-to emotional state for me, but I like revenge movies and I like Jacobean revenge plays,” Mr Eggers says. The story of the murderous brother and vindictive son is based on the tale of Amleth, a Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

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The prince of Denmark featured in Mr Eggers’s upbringing. He was brought up in rural New Hampshire by his father, a professor of Shakespeare, and his mother, a theatre maven who helped him sew costumes to wear to school. Unusually, he grew up reading the plays in the original Elizabethan English, and has found himself using words such as “divers” in meetings with studio executives. “My parents never thought Shakespeare, the language, would be an obstacle for me,” the film-maker says.

His fondness for the archaic—particularly his comprehensive knowledge of Nordic folklore—gives “The Northman” the sort of historical authenticity that some film-makers struggle with. Mr Eggers even drew upon the work of “experimental archaeologists”, scholarly re-enactors who “really try to live like Vikings for a couple of weeks at a time to try out hypotheses” about how people lived. Paired with dialogue that has the gravitas of myth and draws on actual sagas, it all feels far from the titillating medieval fantasies that play out in “Game of Thrones”.

This meticulous approach is evident in his cinematography. Mr Eggers prefers to shoot long sequences with a single camera—an arduous but purposeful method that sweeps the viewer into the scene. Parts of “The Witch” feel uncannily real, as if the viewer is sharing the haunted space with the Puritan settlers. “The Northman” has its own hallucinatory passages. In one scene Amleth and his father enter an underground chamber for an animalistic ritual in which they bark like dogs.

In his 20s Mr Eggers was part of a street troupe in New York, an experience he describes as an education in fearlessness. “I think because I come from the theatre, there’s something magical about production for me, working with actors and having that moment where you just get it.” He recalls talking about kabuki, a form of Japanese performance, to figure out one scene with Ms Kidman, and about Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre director, with another actor. “This stuff stays with you.” Even at the epic scale of “The Northman”, the elaborate production feels like a labour of love, not a fussy re-creation, from the hand-embroidered costumes to the working longships. “The hope and the dream is that it becomes holistic cinema. All the details of the design, the performances, just become like one beast,” he says.

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But such a beast can be difficult to manage. Mr Eggers is frank about the stress of producing such an ambitious film, which took 87 days to shoot. Delays owing to the pandemic derailed the final sequence, which was eventually relocated from Iceland to Ireland. Still, he acknowledges that he is “very fortunate to have the opportunity to make a movie at this scale that is something I co-wrote, and not some franchise or comic-book movie.”

In fact it was Alexandra Shaker, Mr Eggers’s wife, who suggested he read the Icelandic sagas that planted the seed of an idea for “The Northman”. When your correspondent admitted to owning just one lamentably slim Penguin volume of Viking romances, Mr Eggers replied: “‘Bosi and Herraud’, yeah, that’s a saucy one. We turned a passage of that in the film into a song that some enslaved people are singing in the woods”. He rattled off three or four more tales for further reading.

“The Northman” is playing in American and British cinemas now

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