Eye For Film >> Movies >> Margrete - Queen Of The North (2021) Film Review
Margrete - Queen Of The North
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
There’s a moment in Charlotte Sieling’s biopic of Denmark’s Queen Margaret the First when its heroine, played with customary aplomb by Trine Dyrholm, is challenged over her inability to tell whether or not a stranger who has arrived at her court is her long lost son, and responds by telling her male accuser that she doubts he could recognise any of the illegitimate children he has left scattered around Europe. Queen or not, it’s a bold move for a woman to slut shame a man on the cusp of the 15th Century, but it’s entirely consistent with what we know of the historical Margrete and it betokens a growing awareness of women as fully fledged people which was closely interwoven with Europe’s slow progression towards the Enlightenment.
It shows up elsewhere with Margrete. We see her take a female captive from her favourite pirate, reminding him that rape is illegal and suggesting that he find a sex worker to travel on his ship. The captive, of course, will be shaped into one of her instruments, because her strength comes from her understanding of the value of making friends. It was instrumental to the foundation of the Kalmar Union in 1397, forging peace between Denmark, Sweden and Norway and saving thousands of lives in the process. But this wasn’t, yet, an enlightened age. Although she was the one who commanded respect, Margrete was obliged to rule through a man. Initially this was her son Olaf, but when he died unexpectedly in 1387, she adopted her great nephew Bogislav, changing his name to the locally more palatable Erik, and placed him on the throne. it was an arrangement which worked remarkably well for everyone until that stranger arrived.
Historical records of the ‘false Olaf’ who staked his claim on the throne in 1402 do not generally take him very seriously. Despite having supposedly lived in Denmark for 16 years, he could not speak the language; the claim hinged simply on his appearance and on his potential usefulness to German agents keen to destabilise the Union so that they could invade. Might Margrete herself have doubted, though? Sieling’s film is built around this possibility, and it finds possible explanations for the flaws in the claim. Most importantly, it highlights the political turmoil caused by the claim and suggests that, whilst this might have motivated the emergence of a pretender, it would also explain the need for a cover-up if he was the real thing.
Real or not, one feels sympathy for the stranger, played here by Jakob Oftebro, as he is clearly a puppet caught between competing interests, throwing himself upon the mercy of a woman whose choices are inevitably constrained by political pressure. It’s this which forms the real core of the film. In its exploration of female power and personhood, it must take on a myth which still persists today: that a mother will always an inevitably put her child first. Whilst it’s something many of us might want to believe, it is also part of the framework which has been used to keep women from leadership roles for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The contention here is that Margrete will not be capable of putting her country first despite her pledge to serve. Not only is she forced to walk through a political minefield, but she must reckon with foundational aspects of her own identity.
Although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with Scandinavian history going into this, if only to understand the wider context and some of the tangents which there is no time to explain, the film does a good job of establishing the basics as it sets up its narrative, without too much heavy exposition. Most of the key figures are all well developed and played, with Søren Malling, whom viewers may recognise from the original The Killing, particularly impressive. Morten Hee Andersen flounders a little as Erik. it’s a difficult role, because his floundering is really the point – he’s young, he’s caught in a difficult situation, and we need to see the weakness which makes Margrete fearful of him acquiring more power – but Andersen nevertheless fails to gel with the rest. It’s the sort of flaw one might not notice were it not that the rest of the film is so good.
The Czech Republic stands in for Denmark here, but there are not many outdoor scenes and inside, one Medieval castle can be made to look much like another. The costuming is very good, with the sort of attention to detail essential in giving a film like this credibility. More than anything, though, the film rests on Dyrholm’s performance, and she does not disappoint. It’s quite a thing to carry an audience – even a modern one – through some of what Margrete has to do, and it is her efforts which enable the story to make emotional as well as political sense. If you’re looking for a Medieval tale with swordfights, pirates, spies and seduction, you’ll still get something to make you happy, but this is Dyrholm’s film.Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2022
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