Mika Kaurismäki’s The Girl King is a visually exotic tale with a patchy storyline that brings you into the life of the most intriguing Swedish monarch of the 17th century. Young Swedish actress Malin Buska plays neurotic, whimsical child-queen Kristina, who is brilliant with letters and learning. But she struggles as a monarch, reigning over masses of poor and ‘bearish’ people, which is how one of her counsellors describes life in 1650s Sweden in the film.
The film begins at the time of the death of King Gustav. This most beloved monarch leaves behind a six-year-old girl as his only living heir. The Chancellor of the kingdom, played by Michael Nyqvist, calls Kristina his daughter and brings her up in every sense like a boy. This is enough that coming out of her young years, Kristina has lost all her feminine traits and does what most boys at this age would: rides horses, works a sword, gets into duels and plans war strategy. When she formally takes over the throne upon turning eighteen, the country and especially her court are up for a real surprise.
Kristina wants to break free from dogma and ignorance. Inspired by renowned French philosopher and thinker Descartes, she learns languages, is a voracious reader and goes to battle for the purpose of acquiring art and books. She is politically ambitious, fearless and likes to try new and challenging ideas. She begins to propose new and groundbreaking (modernist/scientific) plans to her Lutheran court. That obviously doesn’t go down well. Also hidden in all this is her desire for women. She is instantly attracted to a young woman at court and makes her part of her ‘ladies in waiting’. She is hesitant at first, but not at all apologetic of how she feels and who she is.
Surrounded by conservative courtiers who wish to uphold the Lutheran faith against the ever-expanding reign of the Papacy around Europe, and a bunch of suitors constantly prompting her to get married, Kristina starts to develop a mind of her own. She corresponds with Descartes to ask him questions, understand the human condition in all its facets. She is certainly not a person of her time and struggles greatly to find the right balance between a good ruler and nurturing her inherent curiosity for more knowledge and an understanding of her world.
The film is extremely interesting in terms of exploring this historical figure who is never talked about when remembering great monarchs (typical for female historical figures), and the production is simply stunning. Kaurismäki’s portray of Swedish monarchy and its 17th century world is authentic and a fresh departure from the Anglo-saxon period pieces that we are used to. Both the production and the landscapes in the film are captivating.
But the top-notch production did not salvage the film. It failed to keep me engrossed and left me a little anxious with its patchy screenplay. The writer would have been better served if he focused on one central theme and built around it. The central theme was lost on me.
Montreal celebrity Francois Arnaud is credible (and gorgeous) in his short role as the eventual heir to Kristina’s throne, while Michael Nyqvist as the Chancellor stands up to Buska’s domination of pretty much every frame of the film.
The Girl King saw its world premiere yesterday evening and is in competition for the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival.