The biopic “Becoming Astrid” is a gorgeous piece of heritage filmmaking that chronicles a character-forming period in the young life of the Swedish writer born as Astrid Ericsson, who would go on to worldwide fame as Astrid Lindgren, one of the most beloved children’s authors ever. Doing right by this national treasure in her most formative stage, Danish helmer Pernille Fischer Christensen and her longtime co-writer Kim Fupz Aakeson credibly prove that the eventual creator of “Pippi Longstocking” and “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” was as strong and determined as her characters. With a vibrant performance from fresh-faced Alba August as the lead, “Becoming Astrid” looks sure to become a hot seller and makes one eager for more episodes from Lindgren’s astonishingly unconventional life.
While the narrative is framed by scenes that show the late-life Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) receiving birthday greetings and fan mail from scores of young readers, the majority of the film depicts her from age 16 to her early 20s, enduring a coming-of-age more challenging than one would have expected from a young woman of her time and upbringing. At first glance, we see a smart, irreverent farm girl, living near the village of Vimmerby, in southern Sweden. Part of a brood of four, she’s the oldest daughter of a hardworking, church-worshiping family, genially ruled by father Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and mother Hanna (Maria Bonnevie). But she’s a free-thinker and is constantly questioning what she says as hypocrisy.
Despite her youth, Astrid’s talent as a writer earns her an internship at the local newspaper, The Vimmerby Times, working for charismatic editor Reinhold Blomberg (sympathetic Norwegian actor Henrik Rafaelsen), the father of one of her friends, who shares her belief in freedom, modernity, and the future. Although Blomberg recognizes and promotes Astrid’s gifts, he also begins an inappropriately intimate relationship with her, one depicted here as consensual.
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When Astrid becomes pregnant at 18, Blomberg can’t immediately marry her. He’s already the father of seven, and in the middle of a messy divorce from wife number two. Unwilling to bring shame on her parents, whose land and living comes partially from the church, Astrid relies on Blomberg’s assistance to enroll in a Stockholm secretarial school and plans to deliver her child at a hospital in the capital.
The script provides fascinating detail about the complications of bearing a child outside of wedlock in Sweden in the 1920s, and further proves how brave and radical Astrid was to defy the conventions of the time. Babies born in Sweden, even to unwed mothers, were required to have a father registered on the birth certificate. Since Blomberg’s wife is campaigning to have him jailed as an adulterer, Astrid decides to give birth in Denmark, where he won’t have to be named as the father. She travels on her own to Copenhagen, to the suburban home of nurturing earth mother Marie (Trine Dyrholm, in her sixth collaboration with director Christensen) and leaves her infant son Lasse to be fostered there. As Marie tells her, she’s by no means the first Swedish girl to have done so.
As Blomberg’s court battles drag on, Astrid supports herself as a secretary and spends whatever money she can put together to return to Denmark and spend time with her child. Christensen shows that her heroine’s sacrifices are not only financial and mental but also physical. We see Astrid returning to her family for Christmas, with her aching, leaking breasts bruised from being tightly bound so that no one would suspect that she had recently given birth.
As Astrid’s situation changes over time and her finances become considerably straitened, the script interjects further voice-over letters from her readers. As they praise the resiliency of her characters, Christensen and Aakeson again drive home the point that these years of hardship affected Astrid profoundly and made her into the great story teller that she would become.
Although her previous four features were ultra-contemporary tales, Christensen takes to period filmmaking like a duck to water, and brings to it an uncommon energy. Erik Molberg Hansen’s dynamic, natural-light, widescreen lensing is full of visual interest and matches the sweep of Nicklas Schmidt’s lush string score. Editors Åsa Mossberg and Kasper Leick keep matters pacey, never falling into the trap of heritage ennui. Linda Janson’s cool-toned production design reveals reams of sociological information, as do Cilla Rörby’s exquisite costumes.