With some screen biographies, you go in pre-disposed to like the film because you're hot for the music ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), or you admire the subject's political brinksmanship ("Darkest Hour"). Or maybe you grew up adoring the books written by the movie's protagonist.
For many, that third example will surely be the case with "Pippi Longstocking" author Astrid Lindgren and the engrossing, beautifully acted new film depicting a dramatic portion of her life. The Swedish writer's tumultuous early years, focused on her late teens and early 20s, take up most of the acreage in "Becoming Astrid."
My own experience with Lindgren's work is practically nil, though the 1984 film version of Lindgren's folkoric fantasy "Ronia, the Robber's Daughter" is pretty terrific. As it happens, so is "Becoming Astrid," guided by a superb performance from Alba August as Lindgren. The movie, co-written and directed by the Danish filmmaker Pernille Fischer Christensen, has been finessed with such emotional care, the familiar conventions of the script never become a liability. The movie works just fine for Lindgren newcomers as well as Lindgren buffs; all you need, really, is an appreciation of moment-to-moment human contact.
We meet Astrid Ericsson, one of four children raised on a Swedish farm, at age 16, in the 1920s. Family life means chores, church (the family lives on church-facilitated land) and the occasional, stultifying community hall dance, boys on one side, girls on the other.
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A born storyteller, Astrid gets an internship at the local Vimmerby newspaper, run by the unhappily married and substantially older Reingold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen), father of seven. The short description of "Becoming Astrid" involves the affair between these two; Astrid's resulting pregnancy at 18; the legal obstacles to their happiness; and Ericsson traveling to Denmark to give birth to her son, Lasse. In Copenhagen, Astrid places her infant in the care of a loving foster mother (Trine Dyrholm). At odds with her traditional parents, Astrid pursues her career as a stenographer, then a secretary. But the strain, confusion and heartache of being apart from her son is a great deal to carry.
The real strength and lasting value of "Becoming Astrid" can be found in the margins, and the silences, of these circumstances. The key moment, for me, arrives early, in a scene at the newspaper office. Blomberg has begun to make his intentions known; cautious but excited, Astrid (with newly bobbed hair, the talk of the town) seems to bloom before our eyes, but she's rightly wary about where this might lead.
Director Christensen lets the camera linger for several remarkable seconds in this scene. We see every possible flicker of feeling emerge, subtly, on August's face. Such a moment, I suspect, could only have been captured by a female director of genuine skill. Throughout "Becoming Astrid," August acquits herself brilliantly; the woman we come to know is a tangle of impulses and qualities, and feels vibrantly alive.
In the prologue, we see the elder Lindgren at home, opening birthday cards and cassette tapes from schoolchildren. How, one "Pippi" fan wonders, "can you write so well about being a child," and losing a loved one, and forging on, when Lindgren's own childhood was so many years ago? "Becoming Astrid" answers that question with tact, grace and an unusually sensitive realization of what it takes to win over a child. Especially one's own.
No MPAA rating (some nudity and thematic elements)
Running time: 2:03