I heard about and watched Mika Kaurismaki’s The Girl King. And while I was watching it I kept repeating the mantra “Queen Christina doesn’t exist” to my head. Rouben Mamoulian’s MGM picture captures Garbo so majestically. The film also sparked a tiny curiosity that we already have over people who have led nations. I’ve also always been slightly curious about people who give up political power. And what’s more interesting than the 17th century figure who became the first female ruler of Sweden who abdicated to allegedly live freely as a lesbian? Malin Muska takes on the titular queen who inherited crown and the wars that come with it. Unfortunately Kaurismaki and Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard (Tom at the Farm) tell a histrionic version of these conflicts. They don’t even bother asking the deeper questions that the queen herself may have pondered.
Kaurismaki and Bouchard give us the bare bones of a book-loving queen, she could have been a perfect role model for young queer women. Both films also commonly hint at Queen Kristina’s sexuality by giving her swords and trousers. And these days a film can be more blatant on such depictions, despite of the ethical complexities of doing so. The official history is that Kristina has made Ebba Sparre an intimate female friend and lady-in-waiting. In this modern retelling, Sparre (Sarah Gadon) catches Kristina’s eye and much more. But there isn’t a lot of chemistry between both actors. And the script only allows them to gnaw at each other instead of explore a deeper love between them.
I’ll also give Buska the benefit of the doubt that her stilted delivery of Queen Kristina’s speeches is a character choice. Sure, nobody’s ever sincere about giving political talks. But she could have at least met the real Kristina halfway, who would have made sure that her audience knew about her beliefs. She’s also surrounded by a wasted supporting cast. Michael Nyquist plays her chancellor Axel Oxenstierna and Martina Gedeck plays her mother Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. They’re forced into sociopathic, bipolar depictions of their characters, and I’ve seen both do better. It’s also as if Kaurismaki also blocks and shoots his characters separately. That decision removes that spark that scenes should have.
Kristina’s life isn’t just a historical but a political one, and political films deserve a panache in conveying the ideas that she and the people around her had. But instead of highlighting the ideas, Bouchard wrongly chooses to highlight the acrimony that she had with the other nobles. I find it difficult to believe that the Scandinavian court was that antagonistic, even it if was comprised of grown men crowding on a young woman. The script treats the nobles and even the citizens like fundamentalist beer guzzling boors. And this fictional Kristina’s Descartes-loving intellectual snob isn’t as sympathetically complex as the real one.
Kaurismaki also gives no commitment to anything in the film aesthetic-wise. Objects seemed cobbled together and the lavish costumes don’t complement the Spartan sets. There seemed to be no deliberate decisions to what we physically see on film, which unfortunately doesn’t help us transport to such an old and fascinating world.