Thursday, June 2, 2016
THE GIRL KING (2015)
Any Swedish actress who takes on the role of Christina, her nation's most famous queen, has big shoes to fill. Greta Garbo most famously essayed the role in a 1933 Hollywood film, while Liv Ullmann took her turn in a 1974 British film. Each could claim to be one of the most famous and acclaimed actresses in the world when they played the role. Malin Buska can't say the same, though like her predecessors she performs the role in English for Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki's history play. While Garbo's Queen Christina and Ullmann's The Abdication were prestige pictures in their day, I suspect that Buska's Girl King is aimed at a niche market. Here, what is only hinted at by Garbo's infamous kiss of a lady-in-waiting becomes almost the main subject of the film. I say almost because The Girl King aspires to be more expansive in its portrayal of Christina as an Enlightenment intellectual and a woman ahead of her time. Unfortunately, it leaves you with the impression that the queen was a pretentious brat.
Christina was raised to rule despite her gender and grew up a tomboy who apparently never reconciled fully with her femininity and the expectations it created. Like Elizabeth I of England Christina resolved to be a virgin queen, going so far as to adopt an heir to the throne rather than make one herself. Like many women of her time, she had at least one special female friend, Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), but as in those cases it's unclear how intimate (by our standards) the women were with each other. By our standards, at least, it seems odd for Christina to flirt with Ebba at one moment, and with the Catholic Church in the next. Then in another moment she's assisting Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) in a dissection of a cadaver's brain, revealing the pineal gland which the philosopher declares the physical seat of the human soul, while nobles and courtiers huff and hurl. Buska lacks Garbo's innate gravitas (I haven't seen Ullmann in The Abdication) and by giving her too many interests the filmmakers make Christina look flighty rather than enlightened.
The Girl King suggests that Christina's abdication was precipitated by the discovery -- apparently in the nick of time -- of her sexual attraction to Ebba, who is kidnapped and quickly married off to a blond, blank nobleman. Her Catholic hobby is an additional deal-breaker but the film's message seems to be that she can no longer be queen if she can no longer live and love as she chooses, so she'll go to Rome and hang out with the Pope instead. I guess he could commiserate about the celibacy, or perhaps explain alternatives to the new exile. The movie ends with Christina's abdication ceremony, culminating with her crowning of the new king and her shucking off the royal robes to march off in a man's costume, saying in effect that she's free, though to do what is left an open question, since she isn't able to take Ebba with her. It's closer to history than the Garbo film, in which Christina's great love is a Spanish nobleman, but that's pretty much its only advantage over the 1933 picture.In the end, I doubt whether Girl King is romantic, tragic or titillating enough for its presumed target audience, and it's most likely less of all these things for everyone else.