The Northman Director Robert Eggers Explains His Shakespearean Viking Epic

The Northman Director Robert Eggers Explains His Shakespearean Viking Epic
Image: Universal

Audiences love a good Viking story. The culture of ancient seafaring Scandinavian folk has skyrocketed in popularity recently thanks to hits like Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. But your idea of Vikings may well be about to change thanks to The Northman.

Robert Eggers, director of The Witch and The Lighthouse, is known for bringing his unique perspective to period pieces. So what was his approach to a classic Viking tale?

In an interview with Gizmodo Australia, the director explained that he wanted to move away from the recent pop culture representations of Vikings and return to their historical roots.

“Since Wagner put horns on helmets in his operas people have been reinventing Vikings in pop culture and doing whatever they wanted,” Eggers said.

“Here I’m working with the finest historians and archaeologists and consultants to make a very historically accurate version of a Viking movie. As historically accurate as you can for something from a thousand years ago.”

Eggers teamed up with Icelandic writer Sjón for The Northman and together they crafted an authentic depiction of Vikings that audiences might find surprising.

“I think what will be the most striking is probably the way people dress and the way that things look, compared to the kind of science-fiction rockstar look that the Vikings TV show created and has kind of blown up over the past 10 or 15 years,” he said.

the northman cast
Image: Universal

Most important for Eggers was creating a story that represented the intricate culture of the Vikings.

“I’m trying to get inside the minds of people who lived a thousand years ago and present their culture and their morals without judgement,” Eggers said.

In The Northman Eggers focuses on a classic tale of revenge, that being the tale of the Scandinavian legend Amleth, which is often considered to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But in his construction of Amleth’s tale, Eggers wasn’t afraid to borrow from Shakespeare’s work as well.

“We’ve definitely taken some things from Shakespeare here and there,” he said.

“The character of Gudrún, who is played by Nicole Kidman, is very much a character you would see in the Icelandic sagas. But they have a scene in her bedroom that is not in the story of Amleth but is in Hamlet and we did our own Viking-icised version of that.”

the northman
Image: Universal

Filling out this Icelandic-Shakespearean revenge epic is a cast of equally epic proportions.

Alexander Skarsgård both produces the film and stars as Amleth, a role that he seems born to play. Nicole Kidman also stars as Amleth’s mother Gudrún, and Claes Bang portrays his uncle Fjölnir.

The Northman also marked the return of some of Eggers’ regular collaborators including Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest and Willem Dafoe as Heimir.

“The reason why I love this repeat collaboration is because, particularly with actors, we have to trust each other and it can take a little time,” Eggers explained.

While Skarsgård and Eggers had been working together on The Northman almost a year prior to filming, the director said it still took Skarsgård a few weeks to get into the flow of his work style.

“It’s a hard thing to do as an actor to give yourself up completely to the camera,” he said. “With Anya and Willem, for example, they already know how me and my DP work so they’re able to just relax and step right onto the set.”

the northman
Image: Universal

Amleth’s tale of revenge begins after he witnesses the death of his father at the hands of his uncle. This event fuels him with an almost supernatural need to fulfil his vows of avenging his father, saving his mother and killing his uncle.

It’s at times quite a harrowing story but an important one for Eggers who wanted to accurately present the Viking’s obsession with revenge. However, for the director personally, it was a challenging theme to tackle.

“I’m not a very vengeful person,” Eggers admitted. “I knew that a revenge story was going to work for an audience, that’s part of virtually every Viking story… but for me, [in] the cycle of revenge there are no winners.

“So how do I tell a story where the ending of this movie is a happy ending for our lead character but it isn’t for me? It’s a difficult line to walk.”

The Northman releases in Australian cinemas on April 21.