Review: The Girl King (Kaurismäki, 2015)

Still from the movie The Girl King

Veteran Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki directs a vibrant Malin Buska in The Girl King, a biopic about Christina, the famous 17th century Swedish queen. The film briefly sketches out Christina’s childhood, from her departure from her (possibly insane) mother (Martina Gedeck) at the age of nine to her robust education in everything from religion and philosophy to fencing and shooting. Notably absent, however, is any tutelage in the more “womanly” arts of embroidery, for example, or piano-playing. Nevertheless, tomboy Christina who scorns dresses and sidesaddles does not altogether escape public expectations of her as a female. Bombarded by marriage proposals and pressured by her Privy Council to hurry up already and produce a (preferably male) heir, the young queen is constantly besieged by others’ conception of her duties.

But Christina has her own agenda. Assuming the throne at age 18, she makes it known that she desires peace, education for the masses, the satisfaction of her own curiosity, and, above all, books books books (a girl after my own heart). Her detractors find much to fault in this idealistic platform, demanding instead a more conservative agenda of war, the promotion of Protestantism (which amounts to the same thing), and her marriage. Caught in the middle is Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist again, of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame), who, having taken charge of her upbringing, sees her both as daughter and as his access to power. Privately, Christina pursues other “interests” as well–two of which are quite dangerous, even if she is the queen: the first an infatuation with her lady-in-waiting (Sarah Gadon), and the second a friendship with the Roman Catholic philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes (Patrick Bauchau).

What is original about the film is that it doesn’t consider the question of whether Christina is a good queen. She is capricious, strong-willed, and mostly absorbed with her private pursuits. And, let’s not forget, very young. But the same could be said of other monarchs. Instead, The Girl King is more interested in Christina’s rare independence of spirit. She chafes at the strictures of her position and demands her freedom above all else. In another film in another time she might have been depicted as selfish, negligent, careless, but this movie celebrates her individualism. Why? Because it aims to please as many people as possible.

I find that problematic. The Girl King vastly simplifies and romanticizes Queen Christina’s life. Many of the film’s central relationships appear to be fabricated, based on conjectures or conspiracy theories, or outrageously exaggerated. And then there’s the depiction of Christina herself. The real queen was probably as charismatic as her fictional counterpart, but she almost certainly wasn’t as beautiful. (According to Wikipedia, many historical accounts refer to her having “a bent back, a deformed chest, and irregular shoulders.” The film Christina, on the other hand, is a slim, graceful dark-haired Kirsten Dunst lookalike.) But beauty pleases. And so do dramatic stories of forbidden love, of defying everyone and everything in order to be true to oneself, especially if the protagonist is a clever, pretty girl who speaks English so non-Swedish audiences won’t have to trouble themselves with reading subtitles, though we do have to trouble ourselves with sometimes leaden, accented deliveries. The problem I refer to is that the director grossly abuses his creative license; most of this so-called biopic simply isn’t true.

I find it problematic, yes, but I also understand why Kaurismäki wants to make it as easy as possible for the world to see his picture. It is not a movie for Swedish people, who all probably already know the basic facts of Christina’s life (or at least the juicy possibilities) and at any rate only number around nine million (less than the number of people who live in the state of Georgia). But how many of us outside of Sweden have actually heard of this unique, this indeed legitimately fascinating woman? If the film engages us, if we are titillated enough to Wikipedia “Christina, Queen of Sweden” as the credits roll and to be amazed that we have lived as long as we have without ever having heard of someone so remarkable, then maybe Kaurismäki has accomplished his goal.

(But indulge me for a moment in a daydream. What if he had instead made a film of Mr. Turner-quality realism? It would have been substantially more work and more money and potentially reached a much smaller audience, but what a superb movie it could have been!)

The Girl King opens in the San Francisco Bay Area on December 4th at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.