European Union Film Festival 2016: The Girl King, by Aaron Pinkston
A brief history lesson: In the mid-17th Century, Sweden was a protestant nation, often at war with nations who were aligned to the Pope and Roman Catholicism. In 1632, upon the death of King Gustav II Adolph at the Battle of Lützen, his only heir, six-year-old daughter Christina, was made queen. Given her unique situation, Christina was raised “as a prince,” schooled in philosophy and physical activity, which was often criticized in creating a gender neutrality for the young girl. At the age of 18, Christina took rule of her country. Mika Kaurismäki, the elder brother of Finnish cinema favorite son Aki Kaurismäki, tells Queen Christina’s story in The Girl King, looking at her tough rule, scandalous lesbian affairs, and ultimate denouncement of her country to convert religion and reside with the Pope in Rome. Christina is likely one of the most interesting world leaders who is not widely known in the West—which makes it very disappointing that The Girl King is such a dull depiction of her life.
Many historical dramas about royalty have two concurrent narrative strains: the political rule – including all the true life events recorded in history books – and the pulp, rumors and gossip, often involving romantic entanglements or murderous dealings. The greatest of the genre are able to balance these two sides perfectly, somehow providing historical information in thrilling ways while upping the ante with the more scandalous material.
In The Girl King, neither side of the equation adds up. Almost all of the historical content is told through exposition, often with supporting characters talking about events and giving their opinions on the decisions of the Queen. The film doesn’t have major set pieces, which isn’t altogether a bad thing, but the lack of any epic feel isn’t replaced by a strong central romantic relationship. Christina instantly falls in love with a servant woman, whom she makes her top aide and officially her “bed-fellow.” This romance is unfortunately such a small part of the film, surprisingly, and outside of one or two scenes lacks the raw passion this type of cinematic relationship needs.
Christina is played by young Swedish actress Malin Buska, who gives a very peculiar performance. Some of this might be a struggle with English (the film is a co-production with Canada, and features an even split of Swedish and Canadian actors, which is my only guess as to why it is in English). Buska seems to force every word individually, giving her a strange syntax. I wouldn’t give up hope that Buska can be a talented performer; her unique face and voice have a power that is properly utilized near the end of the film. Overall, however, nothing comes through naturally. This isn’t helped when paired with Sarah Gadon as her lover, an actress who effortlessly exudes life.
One particular scene that shows the narrative disconnect happens mid-way through the film, where Christina’s advisor (Michael Nyqvist) brings the Queen’s distraught, and perhaps psychotic, mother (Martina Gedeck) to strongly suggest marriage for the betterment of the country. This showdown should be a dramatic high point for the film, but Gedeck’s performance is so overdone and Buska can’t really match her. The character is quite obviously supposed to be something of a clown at this point, but it is almost played too straight as no one comments on it as unusual behavior. Perhaps if Buska was a more nimble performer they could have had the proper chemistry.
The Girl King needed to either be more intimate or have more grandeur—ideally the film would both in order to stand out among the many historical costume dramas like it, but either would have certainly helped for anything to connect. A compelling story is there. Perhaps with a little more ambition and a broader scope this could have made for a really nice BBC mini-series. Still, even in a feature film format, the rule and the lust of Christina, Queen of Sweden, should be better represented.