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New Release Review - THE GIRL KING

The story of the tumultuous reign of Sweden's 17th Century Queen Kristina.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Mika Kaurismaki

Starring: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, Laura Birn, Hippolyte Giradot



Swedish history buffs will likely face-palm at this glossy representation of one of their country's most important and iconic figures, but those less intimately invested will find The Girl King an entertaining, if often exasperating, period romp.


Back in the 1960s and '70s, when European cinema was thriving like never before in the sound era, it wasn't uncommon for North American stars to hook up with continental auteurs - Burt Lancaster and Luchino Visconti, Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci, Elliott Gould and Ingmar Bergman - but when the era of the Hollywood blockbuster arrived in the post Star Wars late '70s, this trend largely came to an end. Over the past couple of years however we've seen young North American stars look to Europe for more interesting work; Kristen Stewart's teaming with French director Olivier Assayas might be the most notable transatlantic working arrangement since Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, while indie icon Brady Corbet seems to be on a constant European tour, cropping up in films by esteemed Euro auteurs like Lars Von Trier, Ruben Ostlund and Mia Hansen-Love.


Now it's the turn of Canada's Sarah Gadon to try her luck on the European stage. Having played a young Queen Elizabeth in the British production A Royal Night Out, she's back for another tale of a female monarch, this time Sweden's controversial Queen Kristina, who ruled the Scandinavian nation and its empire for a brief and tumultuous period in the mid-seventeenth century. This time Gadon takes a backseat however, with Sweden's Malin Buska essaying the role of her country's most notable female monarch, and following in the footsteps of her compatriot Greta Garbo, who famously portrayed the Queen in 1933's Queen Christina.

While the earlier film invented a romance between the Swedish Queen and a Spanish envoy, The Girl King tells the true story of her lesbian affair with one of her ladies in waiting, Gadon's Countess Ebba. A European monarch conducting what must have been a hugely taboo affair in the seventeenth century sounds like a no-brainer for a great piece of drama, but the problem here is it wasn't really all that much of an issue for Kristina, apart from the small matter of Ebba being engaged to marry. When you're the ruler of an empire, taboos don't really exist in your privileged domain, and so while there are tut tuts and whispers in palace corridors, Kristina is left to conduct her affair without interference, with even the Pope willing to overlook her sexual preference as he attempts to make her Rome's 'Virgin Queen' and thus win the propaganda war in the ongoing bloody conflict between Europe's Protestants and Catholics.


If the film never creates any real drama for the viewer to invest in, there's enough to keep casual history buffs entertained as director Mika Kaurismaki (brother of Aki, though his filmmaking style couldn't be more different; The Girl King resembles a higher budget European TV production) and screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard (adapting his play) pack in a multitude of references to the politics of the time. There are too many subplots to keep track of, and none of them really get their due, save for the budding affair between Kristina and Ebba, which isn't half as interesting as, for example, Kristina's apprenticeship under the then controversial French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes (a quietly mesmerising Patrick Bachau making us wish the movie were instead a biopic of his character).

With impatient editing that at times appears to cut away mid-scene, The Girl King often plays like a two part TV mini-series truncated for a cinema release, and the lack of patience regarding some of its historical details is frustrating. Still, it's never dull, thanks to a combination of history's dramatic gifts and a host of engaging performances - Buska makes for a highly charismatic lead; expect her to follow the path of Noomi Rapace and Alicia Vikander in the next few years. There's a lot of dry Scandinavian humour on display here too, most notably in a hilarious scene in which Kristina's attempt at an inspiring speech is cut short by her Chancellor's (Michael Nyqvist) offer of free beer to her peasant audience in a true understanding of the reality of politics.


Though Buska's performance and her character's formidable spirit make Kristina a fascinating protagonist, the film never really penetrates her psyche, making many of her choices seem puzzling, particularly regarding her schizophrenic attitude towards her nation's Catholic enemies. Swedish history buffs will likely face-palm at this glossy representation of one of their country's most important and iconic figures, but those less intimately invested will find The Girl King an entertaining, if often exasperating, period romp.

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