Monday, 14 December 2015

Review: The Girl King (2015)

The Girl King, a film by Mika Kaurismäki, tells the story of the Queen Christina of Sweden - or, rather, the story of her years in Sweden. It was filmed mainly in and around the city and castle of Turku in Finland, while the actors are from Finland and Sweden. I wrote about the film and its props earlier, so I will now focus more on the film and the way it depicts the queen and the era. And when you are done reading with my review, please take a look at my wife's opinion as well, over at the Wrestles with Words blog.

On the whole, the film focusses mainly on Christina Augusta's (Malin Buska) personal life and her struggles with her identity and the people's expectations of her, rather than her actual career as a ruler of a vast kingdom. We get some information about her troubled childhood and learn that Gustavus Adolphus raised her like a boy for the first six years of her life. Unfortunately, we learn this mostly through dialogue, rather than on screen. The film begins when Gustavus Adolphus has been dead for two years and Christina's mother makes her kiss the king's dead and preserved body every morning and evening before High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) finally steps in and orders the body to be buried - and Christina to be taken away from her mother.

After this, the script turns the focus to Christina's relationship with Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon) and her enthusiasm towards foreign philosophers, such as René Descartes (Patrick Bauchau). Quite predictably, the men of the court do not view the queen's and the countess' relationship very fondly when they realise quite how close it actually is after Christina names the countess as her official Bed Warmer. Also the French ambassador has his own designs for the young queen and recruits Descartes to work with him to turn Christina towards Catholicism.

Historically, the film takes many shortcuts and simplifies Christina's story. Christina is shown in perhaps a little bit too important role in modernising Sweden and improving it culturally, when her father and Axel Oxenstierna had already begun many of these processes before her time: Gustavus Adolphus forced the universities to expand their education and produce bureaucrats for the management of the empire, rather than just priests. The Turku Gymnasium was founded in 1630 and turned into a university in 1640, and the Tartu University was founded in 1632 when Christina was only 6 years old. Also, it was mainly Oxenstierna who invited Jean Comenius to design the Swedish school system in 1638 when Christina was only 12.

What the film lacked was Christina as a Queen. We only saw her in one or two situations where she did something for Sweden and these mainly had to do with the end of the Thirty Years War. While this was an important event, Christina also made many other decisions that might have been shown - such as giving power back to the nobility after her predecessors had worked hard to lessen their power. I would also have loved to see more of Gustavus Adolphus in flashbacks. We get one scene of him alive, playing with Christina, and one where he lies as a corpse to be kissed. It would have been great to see some of Christina's early childhood memories as well. There was, in fact, a scene in the trailer showing Gustavus Adolphus on a battlefield that was never shown in the film.

Another thing that probably only a Finn can complain about is the filming location. The Turku castle stood in as the Royal Castle of Stockholm, because the original castle burned down in 1697. For someone who's been to the castle more than once and is familiar with its courtyards and rooms, it was difficult to stay immersed in the scenes - especially since the low budget apparently gave few possibilities for set dressing.

Overall, I liked the film well enough, but it could have delivered a stronger and more coherent story. Some of the dialogue was quite unfinished (perhaps the translation into English of the original French script was done a bit too quickly?), some acting and scenes could have used a bit more direction, and some characters' storylines and character arcs were left somewhat unclear. Still, for a period enthusiast, this was a must-see film and I will definitely want to watch it again once it comes out on Blu-Ray.

3/5

See? I managed not to mention the rapier!