The Girl King—Review

by on December 3, 2015

Mika Kaurismaki, the older sibling of better known director Aki Kaurismaki, directs a historical biopic about one of Sweden’s most famous rulers.  Four L-words describe the life of Queen Kristina, Kaurismaki’s titular “The Girl King.”  They are learning, Lutheran, leverage (the political sort), and lesbian.  The ruler’s tragedy, in Kaurismaki’s telling, comes from her inability in the long run to keep all four things in her life.

In 17th century Sweden, the only heir to the throne is young Kristina.  Chancellor Axel Oxenstiema (Michael Nyqvist) provides tutelage and parentage to the child who will become the country’s future ruler. When Kristina (Malin Buska) formally assumes the reins of power, her country is still simmering from a decades-long war between Lutherans and Catholics.

The new queen’s desire to fight for peace among neighboring countries has to survive the royal court’s snake pit.  Conservative Lutherans have limits on their tolerance for their queen’s appetite for new ideas and customs.  The French ambassador plans to exploit Kristina’s love of Rene Descartes’ work to convert her to Catholicism.  Karl Gustav Kasimir (Francois Annaud) and the Chancellor’s son Count Johan Oxenstiema (Lucas Bryant) hope to marry Kristina and relegate her to producing an heir.  But Kristina’s star-crossed heart belongs to attractive lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon).

Kaurismaki’s telling of the Swedish monarch’s tale differs from the famed 1933 version starring Greta Garbo.  No handsome Spanish ambassador appears in this version to eventually steal Kristina’s heart.  More importantly, the queen’s passion for her lady-in-waiting, whom Kristina affectionately nicknames Belle, gets a lot more explicit than subtext.  This treatment should not be a surprise.  The  screenplay is the product of the pen of Michel Marc Bouchard, author of the seminal gay drama “Lilies.”

Bouchard’s script eschews historical aristocracy porn to favor a psychological portrait of the 17th century monarch.  The writer aims to show that the controversial monarch’s actions were not the products of an erratic whim.  Rather, these actions reflect an intelligent woman trying to lead what would be a modern life in the face of hidebound social and religious tradition.  Kristina wanted answers regarding the emotional turmoil she endured in her life.  Lutheran doctrine seemed to her to deny or downplay her need to search for answers.

In this context, the script’s portrait of the Catholic Church as a possible refuge for Kristina seems the stuff of black comedy.  Lesbians and other folk of the homosexual persuasion haven’t historically been given the open arms treatment by that organized religion.  The Catholics determined to win Kristina to their side apparently had not heard that the Swedish monarch’s amorous affairs had become the stuff of popular song.  Perhaps the prospect of converting a prominent member of the Catholics’ religious enemy persuaded the relevant officials to “overlook” Kristina’s love for Ebba.

Definite if unintentional comedy comes from the method Kaurismaki’s production chose to make this international production accessible to English-speaking audiences.  It’s not a sin to have Linda Gaboriau translate Bouchard’s original French script into English.  Problems arise for English-speaking audiences because the ability to speak in English isn’t always the ability to act in English.  For example, the scene where Kristina is ordering Ebba to be her bed companion feels badly off.  The monarch’s order isn’t terribly extraordinary, as Kristina references her late father having such a companion.  Yet the audience already knows the monarch is sexually interested in her lady-in-waiting.  Buska’s flat delivery fails to convey that this request actually conceals a clumsy excuse for extensive body contact.

Unfortunately, this is not a one-off problem.  When things go badly later for Kristina and Ebba’s relationship, Buska’s line delivery doesn’t convince an English-speaking audience member that her character is someone caught in the throes of romantic agony.

Fortunately, Buska finds other means to make plausible the monarch’s love for her beloved Belle.  Kristina’s clumsy kiss charms with its mix of desire and naivete.  The consequences of a deliberate dip into a very cold river earn the monarch an “I suffered for love” badge.

Buska also succeeds in making Kristina’s mercurial behavior belong to a reasonable person instead of a burgeoning madwoman.   Kristina’s creativity and intelligence comes across as something she possesses, not something mentioned in the script.  Her correspondence with Descartes feels thoughtful.  She’s not above such politically cunning acts as using force to push a recalcitrant nation to bargain.  Her swordplay practice in undergarments feels like self-liberation from the strictures of royal responsibility.

Bryant’s portrayal of Johan as the film’s villain proves problematic.  Ambition and jealousy play prominent parts in the behavior of the Chancellor’s son.  Yet any sense of menace or frustrated entitlement feels lacking in Bryant’s performance.  Surprisingly, the royal line of succession never becomes an effective political cudgel in Johan’s hands.

Nyqvist does somewhat hold his own as the Chancellor.  But given the other actors’ performances, this is a definitely low bar.  The indulgent pragmatic father figure comes through easily.   Nyqvist also convinces viewers of his character’s history of cherishing and nurturing Kristina’s intelligence and inquisitiveness.  Yet when his surrogate daughter/son crosses several lines, particularly the religious one, his reaction lacks any feeling of agony or betrayal.

How many of the events related in “The Girl King” are fictional speculation and how many are historical fact?  The real-life Kristina’s correspondence with the real-life Ebba certainly hinted at a passion going above and beyond polite friendliness.  The Swedish monarch’s ultimate solutions to the succession issue and the Catholicism issue are indeed matters of historical fact.  Laypeople unfamiliar with the period can decide for themselves their degree of suspension of disbelief.

Queen Kristina has been embraced as a historical queer icon.   Garbo’s 1933 portrayal of the queer monarch limited acknowledgment of her orientation to a penchant for wearing men’s clothing.  Buska’s more openly pro-lesbian portrayal, though, will not supplant Garbo’s performance any time soon.

(“The Girl King” will receive a home video release from Wolfe Video.  It also opens December 4, 2015 at the Lark Theater (549 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur).)

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