Already portrayed onscreen by Greta Garbo and Liv Ullmann, Sweden’s 17th-century “virgin queen” Christina becomes a mercurial tomboy with marked Sapphic tendencies in “The Girl King.” Finnish veteran Mika Kaurismaki’s English-language multinational co-production won Malin Buska the best actress nod at Montreal, also capturing the audience award for best feature. But this is biographical melodrama in a Ken Russell-esque mode of over-the-top histrionics, albeit without that late helmer’s distinctive visuals or touch of directorial madness; it’s hectic, unsubtle, borderline cartoonish. It won’t lose much in translation to the small screen, where its ermine-lined, sword-crossing passions will fit comfortably alongside costumed cable skeins. LGBT-cinema specialist Wolfe Video plans a multiplatform U.S. launch in early December.
A figure of understandably great fascination over the centuries, Christina Augusta’s brief, tumultuous reign over the Swedish empire was marked by war, religious conflict, court intrigue, attempts at aggressive modernization, and her own striking resistance to gender conventions. But just how this unique, defiant personality came into being is a matter basically ignored in the screenplay by Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard (“Lilies,” “Tom at the Farm”). There’s a brief prologue in which we glimpse the young queen’s bizarre childhood, crowned at age 5 yet still in the ostensible care of her unstable mother, Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg (Martina Gedeck), who for nearly two years insisted that King Gustav Adolphus’ putrefying corpse remain unburied at home. The sole heiress is forcibly removed from this environment by political powerbrokers including Chancellor Oxensteima (Michael Nyqvist), who oversees her education.
The film starts in earnest with Christina’s true assumption of the throne at the age of 18 in 1644, with all idiosyncrasies presented as already fully formed. No longer a mere figurehead, she immediately begins asserting her own considerable will, upending traditional protocols in everything from her penchant for masculine dress and pastimes to her pursuit of progressive social policies. While her father had greatly expanded the Swedish empire by participation in the Thirty Years’ War between Europe’s Protestant and Catholic states, she advocated peace, while at the same time using military force when it suited her acquisitive hunger for other cultures’ artistic and intellectual treasures.
Other preferences were still more controversial, like her open interest in Catholicism amid a climate of strict Lutheranism; her inviting French philosopher Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) to Sweden as personal advisor and tutor; and her refusal to marry, despite proposals from numerous foreign royals, not to mention more immediate candidates like Oxensteima’s son (Lucas Bryant) and a fondly regarded cousin (Francois Arnaud).
But the primary focus here is on the monarch’s passionate devotion to lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre (a wide-eyed Sarah Gadon), whose status becomes a matter of bawdy public rumor even before Christina appoints her official “bedfellow.” Eventually this scandalous intimacy triggers a plot to separate the two women, hastening Christina’s ultimate decision to abdicate and commit the ultimate heresy against Lutheranism: She spent her final decades (not portrayed here) as a permanent guest of the Vatican.
There’s more than enough drama, complexity and speculative intrigue in the single decade of Christina’s adult reign to sustain an epic miniseries. Unfortunately, “The Girl King” compresses, simplifies and exaggerates this history to fit a feature-length frame, in the process becoming one of those costume dramas that play like a hyperventilating highlight reel of events. Psychological depth and period credibility are sacrificed to a popular audience’s presumed need to be constantly entertained (and titillated) in very up-to-the-moment terms. It’s not Buska’s fault that she’s asked to keep the “mercurial” intensity ramped up at all times, resulting in a character that’s duly larger than life but remains two-dimensional. The most successful performances here are those allowed to practice some contrasting restraint, like Bauchau’s ill-fated visitor. Too many scenes are pitched near hysteria, with frequent deployment of slo-mo lyricism hardly alleviating the ham-fistedness.
Design contributions reflect the more austere aesthetic of Scandinavian court life, as compared with gaudier aristocratic realms elsewhere in Europe at the time. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing that there’s no real grandeur to the overall packaging, which, like “The Girl King” in general, feels busy but uninspired.