Female firebrand Kristina of Sweden.
By David Goldberg
When it comes to screen queens of the literal variety, what is it that really makes the celluloid crown jewels shimmer: romance, or rule? Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki struggles to balance palace lust with fierce politics in The Girl King, a splashy, herky-jerky biopic of one of history’s most uncelebrated lone-wolf lady lieges, Kristina of Sweden.
In 1632, at the age of six, Kristina (Malin Buska) inherits the Swedish throne, and at age 18 embarks on a bold and controversial decade-long rule. Provided with an education befitting a man, the renegade royal disavows the traditional femininity of her time and seeks to make her kingdom a bastion of peace and learning. She directs military campaigns and tricky negotiations, and attempts to handle a bitter divide between Lutherans and Catholics across Europe.
But for a movie about a female firebrand who would eventually die a virgin at age 62, too much of The Girl King is fixated on Kristina’s love life. She obsesses over her lady-in-waiting and “bed companion” Belle (Sarah Gadon), a cherubic beauty with nothing interesting to say. Though sweet and earnest as it first blossoms, the affair quickly becomes repetitive fluff, and leaves other storylines not fully fleshed out. The queen’s intense relationship with philosopher René Descartes gets capped quickly and mysteriously, and her contentious choices to abdicate her throne and convert to Roman Catholicism flash by so fast that they appear to be scenes from an upcoming sequel.
Why must female monarchs give up so much of their precious screen time to chronicle dull love affairs? Any gay man or lesbian of the ’90s can quote Cate Blanchett’s volcanic monologues from Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but who even remembers her exhausting dalliances with Joseph Fiennes and Clive Owen? Masterpiece Theatre miniseries have hours to spare on surreptitious kisses in court; can’t big-screen queens use their 90 minutes to yell at subjects, eat cake, and win wars without losing their minds over crushes?
Fortunately, pop culture’s most beloved monarch doesn’t have much time for trysts. Game of Thrones has expanded the political challenges that its Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) must face as she attempts to impose rule on the fictional city of Mereen. Sure, she still gets a hot piece on the side, but viewers prefer to return for dragons and conquest, not kisses from consorts. If only her sister screen-queens could follow suit.
Admittedly, it is good fun to see illicit palace lust consummated by two women, but the real treat of The Girl King is to see Malin Buska strut around in leather breeches and fabulous fur menswear, shaggy hair ruffled as she likes, kicking her riding boots up on the table during royal council. Buska delights in chewing scenery and ripping her advisors and suitors apart with a bold ruthlessness that isn’t played to be sexy or likeable. The Girl King may not be the most lavish or expensive period piece of the year, but as evidenced by a spitfire showdown between Kristina and her deranged mother (Martina Gedeck), high camp doesn’t require a high budget.
Buska attacks the role and does the historical badass justice, further cementing her place in the pantheon of legendary women on the throne. Hopefully, the virgin queen’s next shot at cinematic glory will allow her to live onscreen as she did in life: without silly distractions.
Available from Wolfe Video (wolfevideo.com) and many major retailers.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.