Goteborg: Margrét Örnólfsdóttir Drills Down on ‘The Flatey Enigma’

“The Flatey Enigma” competes for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for outstanding writing, announced at Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival on Jan. 30.

Margrét Örnólfsdóttir Drills Down on Sky Vision’s ‘The Flatey Enigma’

Set on the stunning Isle of Flatey, North-West of Iceland, the four-part Sky Vision-sold miniseries “The Flatey Enigma” is also a women-centric reading of the eponymous novel by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson which inspires it. Adapted by Margrét Örnólfsdóttir, that works on various levels: As Nordic Noir for the family, a celebration of the extraordinary history and legends of Iceland; and, for those who are looking for it, a pioneering tale of women rewriting or reclaiming history.

Directed by Björn B. Björnsson (“Cold Trail”), it kicks off in the spring of 1971, when Johanna, a professor of Nordic Studies, jets into Iceland to attend her father’s funeral. He has spent his life attempting to solve an enigmatic riddle in “The Book of Flatey,” the most celebrated of Icelandic mediaeval manuscripts. Johanna is a Paris post-1968 sophisticate in a world of Victorian patriarchy. Accused of the murder of a Danish codebreaker friend of her father’s, Johanna has to exonerate herself – hard when the investigating police office sent from Reykjavík wants her out of the way to claim custody of their child – and to solve the Flatey Enigma to keep possession of her family house.

The Icelandic mini-serie is produced by Sagafilm, and co-produced by Reykjavik Films, in association with Nordic public broadcasters RUV, DR, SVT, YLE and NRK, and with support from the Icelandic Film Centre, Creative Europe andNordisk Film & TV Fond. Variety talked to Örnólfsdóttir about “The Flatey Enigma,” which competes for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for outstanding writing, announced at the Goteborg Festival which kicks off today.

The mini-series seems a re-writing of story and history, including of the original best-selling novel, in that its absolute protagonist is now Johanna, not the novel’s male detective. Joanna battles, moreover, to re-write history in past and present, in the past by publishing a paper on the repression of women with Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, in the present by exonerating herself from murder and retaining ownership to her family house by solving the Flatey Enigma. Or maybe I’m totally wrong?

Screenwriting is mostly re-writing, right? But yes, our story differs greatly from the novel and it’s fair to say that the series is inspired by, rather than based on the book. However, I don’t think Johanna is trying to re-write history, but rather recover a missing part of it (a huge chunk, in fact!) since women have up until quite recently been left out of it to a large extent. Johanna is fighting patriarchy on so many fronts, in her personal and professional life as well as in society as a whole. Not to mention history.

One highlight is the lead performances of both Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir and Stefán Hallur Stefánsson. The latter turns in a telling portrait of the small-time monomaniacal male, capable of wheedling claims of victimization and recurrent horrifying brutality. This was your creation, right? Aand would you agree with my description about his attempts at physical and psychological tyranny? 

You mean I created a monster? I’m interested in human nature in all its shades and what intrigues me is what causes us to be in one way or another. I don’t believe in pure evil or people being simply bad or cruel, everything is caused by emotions that we all experience at some time in our life – guilt, jealousy, a sense of rejection… The important thing is to discover the character’s core wound and work from that, then the audience can understand even if they don’t approve. At least I hope I managed to get that across.

As for the miniseries delights, one is its setting: the now restored farmsteads of the island’s historic settlers, painted in their original colors. To what extent can a screenwriter help to develop such a setting?

In this story the setting plays a major role and becomes almost a character by itself. I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks on the tiny island of Flatey when I was a child, in the ’70s, so I had some idea how it looked and felt back then. But of course you can’t but make use of the extraordinary setting – its peculiarities and the captivating beauty of the scenery – and weave it into the writing.

”The Flatey Enigma” is co-financed by the public broadcasters of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Did this condition your writing in any way? In other words, that, though Sky Vision sells, this is not cable or VOD in its original financing? 

I don’t think it conditions the writing much, although you always have to keep in mind for which platform you are writing. But maybe it’s the other way around, that if you have a certain type of work you know it’s more suited for public broadcasters than cable or streaming services. Anyway, I don’t think about it too much when I’m writing, but I did get a complaint from the BBC once, on the draft of another series that I was writing, about my excessive use of the F-word. So I cut it down by half or so.

Has “The Flatey Enigma” now been seen in Iceland? And how did it fare? And, if it hasn’t, when will it be seen? And when will it be seen outside Iceland?

It aired in Iceland in November. Some people loved it, others did not. But since I have so little control over things once I’ve submitted the scripts I try not to let any of it get to me too much, neither the praise nor the complaints. I don’t have the details of when and where it will be shown outside Iceland, they always forget to inform the screenwriter, I usually read about it on Facebook when something happens. But I believe it will be on all the other Nordic public broadcasters.

You’ve written some of the key Icelandic crime titles for a decade. Do you sense an evolution in Nordic or Icelandic Noir? 

Honestly, I would love to see us evolving a bit more. I think we are playing it too safe. But maybe it’s only natural since we are still in relatively early stages. Not stone age, but maybe bronze? The Americans are much more experimental, but obviously they mastered the craft so long ago that they can ride the bike with no hands and joggle burning torches while they’re at it. I would like to see us try though. The worst thing that can happen is that we fall off the bike and… set ourselves on fire. But we won’t die.

What are the main opportunities now opening up to screenwriters in Iceland?

Since the fall of the language wall the world is more or less open to us, I guess. We’ve benefitted greatly from the world-wide success of Nordic TV drama and it’s encouraging that people outside our small country are interested in our stories. However, we are still struggling a bit with our limited resources and we only have one and a half local broadcasters that commit to TV drama. But it’s not unlikely that sooner than later we’ll have Icelandic screenwriters writing original material for international streaming services.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a draft of the second season of “Fangar” (Prisoners), which will hopefully go into production later this year or early 2020. I’m also writing a documentary series, which is a new experience and an exciting experience, but I can’t tell you what it’s about since it’s an absolute top secret. Then I’m in the early development stages of a series based on one of our major literary works, also a secret for now. And I’m doing research for a TV series that’s going to be something else. Apart from that I have a few ideas.

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