The shadow of a certain massively popular fantasy television show looms large over Charlotte Sieling’s “Margrete: Queen of the North,” a glossy period drama that amounts to a what-if expansion on an incident from medieval Scandinavian history. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — anyone missing their weekly dose of sumptuously recreated George R. R. Martin will have their itch lightly scratched by the courtly power-plays, passageway mutterings and spies-in-the-bedchamber aspects of Sieling’s well-upholstered film, even if dragons and ice zombies are notable by their absence.
However the “Game of Thrones” comparison also has its downside: Where the show excelled in keeping multiple plotlines running concurrently so even the simplest scene felt rife with subcutaneous intrigue, “Margrete” follows one storyline with dedicated, occasionally leaden fidelity, proceeding at a pace that might be appropriate in a 20-hour season of television, but that feels unusually indulgent in a feature film. The slower stretches — like the entire first hour — have a tendency to plod, which gives ample opportunity to feast your eyes on Søren Schwarzberg’s grandly gloomy production design and Manon Rasmussen’s superb, elaborate costuming, but also makes the story rather too easy to disengage from.
It doesn’t help that after a tantalizing glimpse of a body-strewn battlefield that teases a more action-packed narrative than is delivered, the film quickly settles into a more sedate rhythm, establishing the wise statesmanship of Queen Margrete (Trine Dyrholm). Through her adopted son King Erik (Morten Hee Andersen), she rules over the Kalmar Union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark — the creation of which was largely her doing — and is apparently liked and respected by all the various territories’ representatives, even while ancient internecine rivalries bubble not far below the surface. Her most vital ally is Bishop Peder (Søren Malling), who represents the church’s interests, and has committed manpower and resources to the creation of a Union army, which will defend the region from attacks believed to be in the offing by Germany.
To further stabilize the new Union’s position in Europe, Margrete has negotiated the betrothal of Erik to Philippa, the 13-year-old daughter of the King of England. She arrives at court along with rakish diplomat Bourcier (Paul Blackthorn), who has been sent to negotiate the terms of the marriage. But that very same night, reports run rife through Margrete’s lavish welcome party that a man claiming to be Margrete’s son Oluf, thought to have died some 15 years prior, has suddenly shown up nearby and the Norwegian emissary has already recognized him, and not Erik, as the rightful King. Margete has the man (Jakob Oftebro) summoned and denounces him as a liar in front of the court. He is imprisoned, pending sentencing.
To this point the film has been admiring of Margrete to a slightly stodgy degree. Crusading, brilliant female leaders who never put a foot wrong — a few unsubstantiated rumors about a ruthless past notwithstanding — do not necessarily make the most complex or interesting of protagonists. But finally the film, which is never very comfortable with ambiguity, finds a higher gear, and Dyrholm gets to imbue her portrait of Margrete with some humanizing notes of doubt and uncertainty, when the storyline makes its biggest deviation from accepted history: Margrete has a change of heart and starts to believe the man is, in fact, her long-lost son (most sources suggest that the historical “False Oluf” was quickly and definitively unmasked as an imposter). This brings her into conflict with the callow Erik, who is fearful of being deposed in Oluf’s favor, and ultimately also with half the Union, as each of the nobles is forced to take sides.
Aside from the design departments, the craft MVP here is probably DP Rasmus Videbæk, whose magisterial camerawork makes the candlelit interiors feel as imposing as the sweeping landscapes, to the accompaniment of Jon Ekstrand’s elegant, classical score. But the very magnificence of the whole production, from its smorgasbord of Nordic acting talent to its self-conscious lionization of a remarkable woman wielding immense power within an otherwise suffocatingly male environment, also serves a more contemporary agenda. At one point, Margrete rescues a young woman, Astrid (Agnes Westerlund Rase) and pointedly reminds the pirate who captured her that rape is a hanging offense. It’s a sequence that, along with the portrayal of the dignified Queen, proudly locates a precursor to the region’s modern-day reputation for progressiveness in terms of gender equality and women’s rights, all the way back in the 14th century.
This all gives “Margrete: Queen of the North” just enough historical and political heft to justify the epic scope of the filmmaking, although its real dramatic heart is with a smaller, more modest tale: that of a grieving mother forced to make an impossible judgment of Solomon, which is grave and touching and, ironically, almost entirely fictional.