The Girl King


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Malin with Alekko the horse and Sarah Gadon, who plays the woman she loves.
"Buska seems completely at ease with this complicated woman who is by turns childish and playful, ferocious and tyrannical, and keenly intellectual."

Pope Alexander VIII once described her as "a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame." Kristina of Sweden was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable women of her era; she has been played on film by Greta Garbo and Liv Ullmann, and stepping into those shoes now is Malin Buska. Aside from her more delicate nose, she bears a striking resemblance to the real queen; and co-star Sarah Gadon looks remarkably like her rumoured object of desire, Countess Ebba Sparre.

Kristina's sexuality has always been important in the telling of her story, with even the Garbo version hinting at it despite the introduction of a fictional heterosexual love story. What this film does differently is to situate it in context, to explore its influence on her thinking and approach to life. Before she is old enough for sexuality to become an issue, she is different in her relationship to gender. She wears masculine clothes whenever she can get away with it and comports herself in a masculine way that seems natural rather than affected. She has absolutely no interest in conforming to the submissive role expected of her - and, therefore, no intention of marrying or begetting an heir.

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If this sounds like trouble, there's much more to come. Kristina will flirt not only with women but with heresy, apostasy and even Satanism; she will not only read forbidden books but will open up public libraries. Most controversially of all, through the Treaty of Westphalia, she will pursue a policy of peace.

For all that audiences loved the glamour of Garbo, nobody has inhabited the role of Kristina like this. Buska seems completely at ease with this complicated woman who is by turns childish and playful, ferocious and tyrannical, and keenly intellectual. Her correspondence with Descartes, who came to join her at her court, forms an important early theme. Her shrewd intelligence also comes through in her command of politics; critics accuse her of ruling on a whim but she can hardly play the political game in the traditional way given the disadvantages she faces as a woman, so she makes pronouncements abruptly but, again and again, in a manner that undercuts her opponents, suggesting she has a much more considered strategy that she simply hasn't chosen to share. It's a fascinating approach that avoids all the usual sentimental traps to be found in historical dramas about women, presenting her first simply as a person, a thinker, a monarch very much in command.

By establishing itself like this, the film is able to play out the romantic aspects of the story as it might if its central figure were a man. Kristina is passionately in love but her initial response to it is anger - she resents anything that interferes with the workings of her mind. Her seduction of the countess is bold, almost cruel, and she is dominant throughout, right up to the point of self destruction. There's strong chemistry between the two actresses and the recitation of Descartes has never been this sexy. Importantly, though, the romance never becomes central to Kristina's identity. By showing us the power of something that is just one part of her, director Kaurismäki hints at the might of the whole.

The film is astutely directed throughout, with little tricks of framing that challenge gender conventions. Kristina's gaze is always level; even when she is not central to a conversation, she takes up the centre of the frame. In combat, whether casual or serious, she is not only capable but assured. Kaurismäki's film doesn't worship her, however; a pivotal scene shows her attempting to discuss philosophy with a ragged crowd of villagers before their loyalty is won for her with a more worldly offer of free beer.

The supporting performances here are strong, especially from Michael Nyqvist as the chancellor who raises her through childhood and Martina Gedeck as Maria Eleonora, her insane yet forceful mother, who looks very much like the recently deceased Elizabeth Tudor and thereby recalls Bette Davis. Around Kristina's story we see snapshots of day to day life in the period, with particular attention paid to the struggles of women and to religious conflicts, both significant in positioning this as a portrait of Europe in transition. Its particular take on history makes it starkly relevant today; it is no mere escapist costume drama. Watching it, one hopes that it might prove a transitional film: more like this, please.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2015
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A biopic of Kristina, Queen of Sweden.
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Director: Mika Kaurismäki

Writer: Michel Marc Bouchard

Starring: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, Laura Birn, Hippolyte Girardot, Martina Gedeck

Year: 2015

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Finland, Germany, Canada, Sweden, France


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