The Girl King
Finland (2015) Dir. Mika Kaurismäki
Yes, I know the proper term for a female king is a “queen” but the reason for this title becomes apparent rather quickly, or even earlier if one is already aware of the history of the infamous and rather groundbreaking Queen Christina of Sweden. And if she is only familiar to you through Greta Garbo’s portrayal of her then be prepared to see a completely different side to her.
The film begins with young Kristina (sic) (Lotus Tinat) rising to the throne of Sweden at aged six as the sole child of the recently deceased King Gustav Adolphus, whose putrefied corpse remained unburied for two years under the insistence of his widow and Kristina’s slightly batty mother Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg (Martina Gedeck).
Realising this wasn’t a healthy environment to nurture the new sovereign, a cabal lead by Chancellor Oxensteima (Michael Nyqvist) took Kristina away and took control of her upbringing and education. When she turned 18, Queen Kristina (Malin Buska) officially took the throne and made waves with her progressive ideas, individuality and insistence on rejecting traditional gender conventions.
From all accounts Queen Christina was a fascinating character and was an important figure in the history of what we now call the LGBT community, which explains why Peccadillo is the UK distributor of this film, but unfortunately Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki’s lavish looking production doesn’t really tells us anything about its subject.
Whatever happened between the age of six and eighteen to make Christina such a maverick thinker and staunch opposition to the regular conventions of her family lineage and country’s traditions is not explored here. So, we are expected to just accept that her ascension to the throne automatically brings with it a fresh perspective in ruling the nation.
Among the decisions Kristina made that upset the status quo were her refusal to wear gowns and participate in “girly” activities; she rejects the Lutheran church in favour of Catholicism; she refuses to marry despite a slew of willing suitors; and where her father was a participant in the Thirty Year Wars, Kristina encouraged peace. And on top of that, she scandalously falls for her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon).
Don’t get too excited though – it’s mostly distant adoration, playful frippery and the odd breathless awkward moment as they struggle to establish their feelings, finally caving into their lust at the 67 minute mark, but only for a minute before they interrupted but two of their respective male suitors who are a bit shocked, cementing the fate of this Sapphic union.
Because there was more to Queen Kristina than her unconventional (for the time) sexual proclivities, the rest of the film sees her basically bickering with her advisors and rejected paramours who seek to undermine her every move, often to little avail. She may have only been 18 at the start of her twenty-two year reign but she was a smart cookie and her ideas were usually met with incredulity and resistance.
Again not explained here but Kristina was a voracious reader and keen on the arts, so much so that she appointed none other than noted French philosopher René Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) as her personal advisor and tutor, another move that ruffled plenty of feathers. In her maiden speech as Queen, Kristina declared her intention to make Stockholm “the Athens of the North”, an ambition that went unsupported.
True to the period drama formula, there are the usual personal tussles of the supporting cast, such as Chancellor Oxensteima trying desperately to betroth his son Count Johan (Lucas Bryant) to Kristina, or the constant feuding with her cousin Karl Gustav Kasimir (François Arnaud), who would eventually succeed Kristina on the throne as King Charles X Gustav.
Unfortunately as well acted and sumptuously presented, it is not particularly interesting either, and with no set direction for the plot other than to depict Kristina’s eventual downfall, this often feels like a series of skits thrown together to pass the time. The one standout scene involves the skull of a dead man being cut open and a piece of his brain being removed in front of a group of alarmed Lutheran priests!
Earlier I mentioned how this was different from Garbo’s 1930’s classic film about Queen Christina – the main difference obviously being the lesbian frisson all but eliminated. In Garbo’s film she falls for a Spanish envoy (played by her real life former lover John Gilbert) but can’t marry him because he is Catholic. Juxtaposing the two films will cause historians to blow a gasket while the uninitiated will be very confused.
This decidedly more accurate production is an international affair with a Finnish director, French-Canadian screenwriter and French, Swedish and German cast, who mostly speak English! Sadly Peccadillo must join Curzon Artificial Eye and Studio Canal in the sin bin for not including subtitles for us hard of hearing viewers. Boo!
Clearly struggling with a language not native to them, the cast do a fine job in their roles but the delivery is often stilted, especially for Malin Buska, whose reliance on hushed tones and her thick accent is quite an obstacle in understanding her dialogue. Kristina reads as an enigmatic and bold yet Buska portrays her as stoic and always on the defensive, making her one dimensional and unsympathetic.
A similar fate befalls the rest of the otherwise competent cast with no-one given the chance to explore the personalities of their characters to make them come across even the slightest bit engaging. It’s a shame as the film looks great but the drab characterisations sap the life out of the visual charm of the impressive reconstructions of the period.
The Girl King is a polished and high end production but doesn’t aim as high as it should, telling only part of a fascinating story. Probably the best compliment I could give it is that it will make you want to research Queen Kristina of Sweden for yourself.