It’s fair to say that Pippi Longstockings author Astrid Lindgren doesn’t have as prominent a profile outside of Sweden as she does within it. The new biopic Becoming Astrid would seem to have this in mind, as it provides a narrative frame to establish her importance. The film opens—and later closes—with an aged Lindgren (Maria Fahl Vikander) in her study, opening letters from adoring children wishing her a happy birthday. The camera slowly tracks in on her hunched silhouette, barely giving us a glimpse of her face as she opens an envelope containing an audio cassette with a recording of children from a fourth-grade class asking questions of the author.
The children’s questions serve as the transition into the film’s main narrative, which flashes back to Lindgren’s experience as a young woman in the late 1920s, occasionally returning to the children’s questions in voiceover to punctuate her significant experiences and, in case we missed it, underline their meaning: “Kids in your stories can make it through anything,” a child’s voice informs us as Astrid is going through an emotional ordeal. As in the prologue whose obvious strokes paint Lindgren as a mythic icon adored by all children, there’s never any ambiguity to a scene in Becoming Astrid that isn’t resolved by a swell of music, the innocently insightful words of a babe, or even a rapid zoom in that pinpoints precisely where our attention should be.
When we first glimpse the young Lindgren (Alba August), she’s coming of age in provincial Sweden, the daughter of pious Lutheran potato farmers Hannah and Samuel (Maria Bonnevie and Magnus Krepper). Like Pippi Longstocking, Lindgren has long, braided pigtails and little patience for the pomposities of adult life. A gifted writer, she’s given an internship by Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen), the publisher of a tiny local paper. The film emphasizes that Blomberg, whose divorce is impending, is impressed first and foremost by Lindgren’s prose (a scene in which he marvels at the language of her reporting is a bit hard to appreciate if you don’t speak Swedish), but it doesn’t take long until the newly single, middle-aged man and the sexually awakening young woman begin sleeping together. Soon, Astrid is pregnant, and must grapple with—and ultimately triumph over—the consequences of having a child with a man who’s technically still married, in a society that frowns upon, and even legislates against, such behavior from women.
Despite convincing performances, the film is hampered by its stylistic and moral conventionality. Its thematic benchmark, the adversity that leads inexorably to the formation of an iconic figure, is familiar from any number of biopics, with the difference that Lindgren’s experiences of childbirth and gender-based discrimination are specifically female. In terms of its portrayal of the options and obstacles for women in Lindgren’s situation circa 1927, the film is informative, even eye-opening. But before Becoming Astrid is celebrated as a feminist herstory, it should be noted that, at least in its version of Lindgren’s story, the film doesn’t have to depart very far from conventional notions of womanhood. For in the end, the narrative’s central crisis is resolved by Lindgren’s becoming a mother not only to her estranged young son, but to an entire continent of children. Liberal viewers can have their cake, and conservative viewers can eat it, too, as the film portrays Astrid Lindgren as a rebel—who becomes the ultimate mother.