‘The Girl King’: Helsinki Review

Courtesy of Marianna Films

Royal with cheese.

Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki’s historical biopic puts a modern slant on a young queen who scandalized Sweden with her rebellious sexual and political behavior.

The veteran Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki, older brother of Aki, realizes a long-cherished dream with this historical biopic about Queen Kristina, who ruled Sweden in the middle of the 17th century. The strong-minded young monarch has already inspired multiple stage and screen portrayals, most famously Greta Garbo in Rouben Mamoulian’s coy 1933 classic Queen Christina, but this movie is the first to fully address her sexuality and proto-feminist ideals.

Reclaiming Kristina as an icon of queer liberation and female empowerment is a worthwhile premise, but sadly the finished film is a stodgy multinational pudding that fails to give this concept wings. An English-language co-production between Finland, Sweden, Canada and Germany, The Girl King is more effective as high-school history lesson than as emotionally engaging drama. It opens in Finnish theaters in December. Wolfe Releasing has signed up U.S. rights.

Rising Swedish star Malin Buska plays Kristina, the only surviving legitimate child of King Gustav II Adolf (Samuli Edelmann) and his German wife Maria Eleonora (Martina Gedeck). As a 6-year-old tomboy, Kristina succeeds her late father on the throne, and begins officially ruling Sweden at 18. Defying the will of her closest advisor, Chancellor Axel Von Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist), she immediately begins pressing for peace in the bloody Thirty Years’ War, which has divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant factions.

A passionate scholar and patron of the arts, Kristina dreams of making Sweden a shining beacon of culture and progressive ideas. She invites great painters and thinkers to her Stockholm court, including the French philosopher Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau). She also sets tongues wagging by cross-dressing in manly clothes, refusing to marry and pursuing a lesbian love affair with a beautiful young countess called Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon). Gossip about Kristina’s sexuality, and her growing drift towards Catholicism, become crucial weapons when her enemies begin conspiring against her.

Kristina’s true story is so loaded with historical and sexual drama that The Girl King really should have been an old-school epic full of palace plots, sword-plunging duels, fiery feminist polemic and bodice-ripping raunch. Sadly, it looks and feels more like a middlebrow TV miniseries, stagey in setting, flat in tone. Much of the fault lies with Michel Marc Bouchard’s script, which was written in French, translated into English by Linda Gaboriau, then acted by a multinational team of non-native English speakers. And boy does it show. No actor should be forced to deliver jarringly clumsy lines like “by the rusty nails of Christ’s cross, this is delicious.” Especially if their limited grasp of the language they are using lends every word an extra flat-footed thud.

The acting is also pretty ripe in places. Some of the main players, Buska included, are so wooden they could be in an amateur porn movie. Kirstina’s key seduction scene with Ebba, bent over a medieval manuscript pointedly nicknamed the Devil’s Bible, is rushed and passionless. Meanwhile, Anssi Tikanmaki’s score is delivered at a feverish pitch, all histrionic strings and shrill choral yelps, often sitting awkwardly with the low-voltage action onscreen.

In fairness, The Girl King has some enjoyable moments of unintended high camp, especially when Kristina’s mad orange-haired mother goes all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? on her daughter’s rebellious royal ass. The costumes are handsome, the courtly intrigues sporadically gripping and the wintry landscapes (mostly southern Finland standing in for Sweden) pleasing on the eye. But Kaurismaki and Bouchard play this rich material far too straight, settling for cheesy melodrama in place of emotional, psychological and political depth.

Production companies: Marianna Films, Triptych Media

Cast: Malin Buska, Michael Nyqvist, Sarah Gadon, Laura Birn, Hippolyte Girardot, Martina Gedeck

Director: Mika Kaurismaki

Producers: Mika Kaurismaki, Wasiliki Bleser, Arnie Gelbart, Rainer Kölmel, Martin Persson, Anna Stratton

Cinematographer: Guy Dufaux

Editor: Hans Funck

Costume designer: Marjatta Nissinen

Music: Anssi Tikanmäki

No rating, 106 minutes