Movie review: Margrete – Queen of the North (Margrete den Første)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Humanity exists, all too often, caught between its lofty ideals and the gruesome truth of its natural state, dreaming of peace, love and prosperity but ending up with the bloodied corpse of war and destruction in its hands instead.

This reaching for the stars but falling into the mud dynamic has impelled us through out history, and while there are copious examples of the truth of this observation, it’s doubtless they have been as fully and arrestingly realised as Danish historical drama, Margrete: Queen of the North (Margrete den Første).

Centred on the mostly 14th century Nordic monarch, Margaret 1 aka Margrete Valdemarsdatter (Trine Dyrholm), who united the once-warring countries of Norway, Sweden (incorporating Finland) and Denmark in the Kalmar Union which lasted 126 years in its full form and until the 19th century in its smaller form as a grouping of Norway and Denmark, Margrete: Queen of the North is a singularly immersive deep dive into the competing interests of the human condition.

Rarely putting a foot wrong, Margrete is a seamless look at a critical point in history where the Nordic countries faced being overrun by other European powers such as the Teutonic Order (in effect, Germany though that actual union didn’t happen until centuries later) and England if they allowed themselves to keep falling into internecine warfare.

Having witnessed firsthand the horrors of war at the hands of her father King Valdemar IV Atterdag, most notably at the Battle of Visby in 1361, the brutal aftermath of which opens the film, Margrete understood how dark the human road could be and that, idealistic though it may seem, that the only way to counter that would be to forcefully, and with great wisdom and insight, to bring and keep people together.

Quite how hard that countering of the natural bloody order of things was for her in evidenced in the intense realpolitik of the film which sees her dead son, King Oluf Håkonsen, supposedly poisoned in 1387, suddenly reappear 15 years later just as delicate negotiations are underway with England for the marriage of the new heir to the throne, Margete’s adopted son from Pomerania (northern Germany and Poland), Erik (Morten Hee Andersen) to Philippa of England (Diana Martinová).

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Credited simply in Margrete: Queen of the North as the Man from Graudenz (Jakob Oftebro), this figure, who appears to have intimate knowledge of the person of King Oluf, though a number of people including wet nurse, the onetime heir to the Nordic Throne, Hildur (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) decry him as an impostor, becomes a form of division in the court of Margrete who continues to rule in Erik’s name though he is now of adult age.

The timing of this mysterious appearance leads many, quite understandably to suspect that the Teutonic Order means to derail the Kalmar Union, thus making their Nordic neighbours far weaker and far more easily invaded, and so, while two trusted confidants of the Queen, Jakob Nilsson (Simon J. Berger) and pirate Roar (Linus James Nilsson), who attacks German shipping for the Union in exchange for a percentage of the goods recovered, seek the truth of the matter, if it is to be found, Margrete struggles to separate hard-headed instincts as a ruler from her natural urge to re-embrace her son.

Assuming he is her son, of course.

Rather cleverly, Margrete: Queen of the North leaves us, and many of the key people guessing as to the veracity of Oluf’s claim, and while certain vested parties stake their claims early on, key figures like Margrete are left wondering about whether Oluf is a clever plot to seismically weaken the Kalmar Union or the real deal.

Whatever the truth of the man known as Fake Olaf – with all the papers that might shed some light on his claim destroyed at the time of the incident, by means best left to the viewing of the film, the mystery of Oluf cannot be solved either way – his appearance sends the Union into a spin at a time when it most needs to be strong, lest everything that Margrete has worked towards comes to nothing.

The utterly involving way in which Margrete: Queen of the North tells its engrossing tale is a credit to director Charlotte Sieling, who co-wrote the film with Jesper Fink and Maya Ilsøe, who keeps the tensions high, the emotions taut and the stunningly evocative bleak landscapes, which mirror the disturbed world inside Margrete’s seat of power in Scania, alive with portent and doom and crushing realities of the impelling need for a mother to hang onto her son even if it could mean everything she has worked towards politically.

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Granted a fair amount of historical license has likely been taken with this superlative piece of moviemaking but grounded as it is in an enduring mystery that continues to confound scholars and interested parties to this day, it makes sense that the makers of the film would want to see what filling in the blanks might look like.

Certainly what emerges again and again is how easily humanity can fall into war and dissension and forgo the many clear benefits of peace.

Margrete notes early on to the sometimes reluctant rulers of the constituent kingdoms and their attendant nobles that peace requires work, such as the raising of a Union army, and that supporting it should be a no-brainer since the prosperity and lives saved should be all the argument you need.

Alas, that isn’t enough for some people, including some within the Union camp, who actively conspire in the wake of the appearance of Fake Olaf to destabilise the grand Nordic experiment with peace over war simply because it will deliver them short-term riches and power accumulation.

What appears to a self-evident benefit to many, including Margrete, turns out to be an impediment to immediate personal gain for others, and much of the entrancing viewability of Margrete: Queen of the North comes from the fact that it explores in ways deeply languid and yet furiously intense what happens when communal idealism meets narcissistic pragmatism.

It is engrossing to watch and it’s highly unlikely you will find yourself checking your watch at all, with Margrete: Queen of the North not simply a brilliantly executed history lesson but also a sage examination of how humanity can dip towards its baser nature even when the benefits of peace are so clear, and how those of good heart and mind (and more than a little coldblooded tenacity and pragmatism) must stay true to the course if idealistic undertaking are ever to see the sustained light of day.

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