MA15+, 120 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
This political drama from Denmark is about an indomitable female leader prepared to make big sacrifices for her country. Strong women were few and far between, according to recorded history, and yet they do still pop up often enough to make you wonder how many more lie in waiting.
In this lavish and stately period drama based on events that took place in 15th century Denmark, Queen Margrete holds her own in a scheming court, keeping her country at peace and safe from attack by ruthless forces, outside and within.
At the centre of Margrete: Queen of the North stands the commanding figure of a Danish monarch who ran the country although she never ruled in her own right, but through her husband and then as regent for her adopted son King Erik (Morten Hee Andersen). She is wonderfully well played by Trine Dyrholm, as a formidable and dignified woman who becomes torn between her sense of duty and her capacity for love and compassion. An able negotiator, she has seen the establishment of a treaty between Denmark and its neighbours Sweden and Norway to maintain the peace. In 1402, when the events in the film are largely set, a Nordic Union had been in existence for five years, bringing peace and security that Margrete believed should be preserved at all costs.
What’s more, young Erik is receiving his future bride, the young English princess, Philippa (Diana Martinova). She is still a child, but their marriage will bolster Denmark even further against the predations of the German states and members of the Hanseatic League.
A woman can always recognise her son, can’t she?
At this critical moment, a stranger arrives at court who puts the entire edifice at risk. The arrival of a man claiming to be Olaf, the true King of Denmark, Margrete’s long-lost son who was believed to have died 15 years earlier, is electric.
The Man from Graudenz as he was known, or False Olaf as he is known in the historical record, is played by charismatic Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, with a disturbing prosthetic scar down one side of his face. He makes quite the impression, ranting and railing that it is Margrete’s adopted son, Erik of Pomerania, who is the pretender, not him. But the case he makes isn’t implausible. And a woman can always recognise her son, can’t she? Margrete isn’t sure, and her terrible dilemma is explored in the screenplay, a collaboration between director Charlotte Sieling, Jesper Fink and Maya Ilsoe. There are deep emotions stirring, there is genuine confusion, but there is also the need to preserve her authority at all costs.
Inconvenient and deeply unsettling counterfactuals
The Man is mocked for the mistakes he makes in Danish, his supposed native tongue, courtiers who one would expect to recognize him don’t, and he is swiftly tossed into the dungeon for his treasonous claim. Then, conflicting facts emerge, the most telling of which is that the body of the dead Olaf was never seen and identified before it was buried. These are inconvenient and deeply unsettling counterfactuals.
One of Margrete’s closest mentors is Peder Jensen Loderhat, a highly influential bishop in the royal court who is capable of chilling ruthlessness towards perceived threats to the status quo. He is played by Soren Malling who made an impression in Borgen as the TV news editor having a major impact behind the scenes on the political environment.
If you’re wondering what reminded you of that terrific hit TV series about a female politician who becomes Danish prime minister, it may be Malling’s rather compelling presence. On the other hand, it may be the way the series and this intriguing historical film both explore the challenges to women in power and their response to the machinations of their political opponents.
Margrete: Queen of the North is a grand, serious and weighty film. Perhaps a connection with current Danish royalty has created expectations that weigh rather heavily, however. Margrete I, who lived from 1353 to 1412, is a predecessor of the popular current queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, who has recently celebrated 50 years on the throne.
Inspired by real events but occasionally bogged down in the historical facts, the film looks outstanding with great attention to period detail, and Dyrholm’s wonderful interpretation breathes life into her character, her times, and her terrible dilemma.
First published in the Canberra Times on 26 Novembner 2022
My reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes