At age six Queen Christina of Sweden (portrayed as an adult by Malin Buska) inherits the throne on her father's death. Raised like a boy by her mentor, Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyquist), Christina comes of age versed in science, philosophy, military tactics and the arts. She develops a keen intellectual curiosity about the world at large. Among Christina's courtiers lies the hope she will defend the Protestant Sweden at a time when Europe is embroiled in a religious war. Yet Christina defies convention, rejects all male suitors, including the Chancellor's ambitious son Count Johan (Lucas Bryant), and outlines her plan to transform Sweden into a haven for artists and intellectuals. To the dismay of her advisers Christina also embarks on a passionate love affair with her lovely lady-in-waiting, Countess Ebba Spare (Sarah Gadon). Can their forbidden love endure the burden of royal duty?
Queen Christina (who later changed her name to Christina Alexandra), among the most educated women of the Seventeenth century: an iconoclast, intellectual, proto-feminist, gay icon and key player in the Catholic reformation, remains one of the most fascinating figures in European history. Her life inspired several famous operas, novels and films. She was famously portrayed by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933), a highly inaccurate biopic, and later another celebrated Swedish actress: Liv Ulmann in The Abdication (1974), based on a play by Ruth Wolf that focused on an alleged heterosexual romance with Cardinal Azzelino in Rome. The Girl King, adapted from a play by screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard, plays up Christina's lesbian identity but drew a tepid response from the gay community.
Directed by versatile Finland-born auteur Mika Kaurismäki, The Girl King unfolds at an unusually rapid clip for a character-driven historical biopic. Performing in multiple languages, though predominantly English, the solid cast invest proceedings with a level of gravitas. However the odd naff moment occasionally drags this lavish Finnish-Canadian-Swedish-German-French co-production to the level of a cheesy docudrama for the History Channel. Juggling multiple themes Kaurismäki makes a valiant attempt at intertwining Christina's sexual and intellectual curiosity, her budding romance with Ebba and ambitions for Sweden along with her stature as a proto-feminist. While Kaurismäki's ambitions are laudable the resulting film is disappointingly shapeless. To have such a vivid, complex female lead at the centre of a sprawling historical epic is a rare gift and the film wisely makes Christina's intellectual and spiritual growth the spine of her life story. Yet too often Kaurismäki renders her an enigma, something not aided by Malin Busha's spirited yet curiously inscrutable performance. We see Christina driven to transform Sweden into a haven for artists and intellectuals but the film never really explains why, beyond her fascination with French philosopher René Déscartes (Patrick Bauchau).
The film yields the odd powerful scene. A confrontation between Christina and her embittered mother Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg (Martina Gedeck) is especially potent. Yet its scattershot approach takes a lot of left-turns into nowhere as with the subplot involving Countess Erika Erksein (Laura Birn) being forced into an abortion or Descarte's grisly dissection of corpse to reveal the pineal gland and thus challenge the notion of a soul. A few of the intimate scenes skirt close to bodice-ripping parody but for the most part the romance is well-played and does move. More intriguing though are the politics underlining the path Christina eventually takes as the film shows Catholics encouraging her to pursue her passion while intellectuals like Descarte remain aghast at her sexuality. Even so The Girl King reinforces the notion movies rarely do justice to complex historical figures, chiefly because it is hard to condense a life into a tight filmic structure.