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With some screen biographies, you go in predisposed to like the film because you’re hot for the music (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), or you admire the subject’s political brinkmanship (“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 folkloric 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.
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. A key moment 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 school children. 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.
Movie releases at the beginning of the year bring to Lamorinda their load of glossy big productions, heroic tales, bold Sci-Fi releases, all more or less reproducing an expected Hollywoodish format where the storyline could be guessed within a few minutes. Not so with “Becoming Astrid,” a breath of fresh cinematographic air that will blow into Lamorinda theaters Jan.
11, based on Astrid Lindgren, the 20th century writer, best known for her creation of Pippi Longstocking and other still popular child heroes.
The film shows 10 crucial years in the life of the Swedish author in the 1920s, where her character was put to the test and where she followed her heart and prevailed. There is nothing very heroic in her story; it is that of an ordinary country girl, raised in a quite rigid and prudish social environment, but animated from the start by an unconventional free spirit, fighting to create a life for herself in her own terms.
Lindgren is not particularly pretty and she does not try to please, but she possesses a wild energy and a talent for writing. Several times during these years where she took risks, she could have sided with convention or chosen an easier path, but she did not, preserving her authenticity and self-worth.
The movie is beautifully shot by Pernille Fischer Christensen, from a script she co-wrote with Kim Fupz Aakeson, which has a strong feminist streak. It was not easy to be a woman in that time period.
In an interview with NPR, Christensen said that her film is also a women’s history story, and that a lot of similar stories have not been told because of shame. Lindgren is shown as a feminist precursor, but with no societal or political creed, just a desire to break free with no regard for what is considered “appropriate.”
In that same interview Christensen said that later in life Lindgren told about this period of her life that “she might have been an author if this had not happened, but … she might not have been as great an author.” It is the difficulties that forced her to fight and become a unique and stronger person.
It is not necessary to be a fan of, or even know, the mischievous character Pippi Longstocking that Lindgren created in her early 40s, or to relate to Lindgren and enjoy the movie.
Though looking at young Lindgren there was a lot of that same mischief in her. Alba August, who plays Lindgren, gives a beautiful and very touching performance. She has no fear of being quite unattractive at the beginning of the movie to becoming pretty by the end.Becoming Astrid” will play at the Rheem Theatre in Moraga on Jan. 11 for one week, followed by a week at the Orinda Theatre starting on Jan. 18.
Long before she found fame with the “Pippi Longstocking” series, the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren had an unplanned pregnancy that changed her life. In “Becoming Astrid,” the Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen uses that formative event as a fulcrum, building a lightly fictionalized portrait of the young Lindgren (played by Alba August) from its emotional and practical fallout.
We meet her in the 1920s, a strong-willed, spirited teenager whose quirky personality demands an escape from the small village in rural Sweden where her religious family farms on church land. The shame of the pregnancy means banishment — and liberation — to secretarial school in Stockholm, where her choice seems to be between an unwise marriage or a life without her child. It will take all her resolve to choose neither.
In many respects, “Becoming Astrid” is your standard biographical drama, its familiar beats untroubled by narrative daring or stylistic surprises. But Erik Molberg Hansen’s relaxed camera movements and fuzzy-soft compositions are quite beautiful, and the performances — including the superb Trine Dyrholm as the baby’s Danish foster mother — are pitch-perfect. Best of all is the magnetic August, whose open, mobile features can slide from plain to lovely with just a shift in the light and whose embrace of the character is a joy to watch.
Bracketed by scenes filled with the voices of children as the aging Lindgren reads her fan mail, “Becoming Astrid” transforms teenage trauma into the wellspring of a lifelong gift. That life, should Christensen care to mine it, contains more than enough material for a sequel.