Kristina of Sweden was an absorbing figure with the potential to inspire a great biopic. The Girl King isn’t necessarily a great account of her life, but it does have moments of greatness. It’s unfortunate that the film’s strong suits are occasionally offset by overblown melodrama, giving it the essence of a TV movie. However, the film does excel in the most important department: it’s leading lady. While the rest of the film is far from perfect, she makes The Girl King too enticing to pass up.
Malin Buska owns the screen as the Queen of Sweden, who becomes heir to the throne at age six after her father dies. She’s raised by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, played by Michael Nyqvist of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Kristina blossoms into a resilient, educated person who knows how to command a room and answers to no one. As Kristina fights to modernize her country, though, virtually all of her subjects resist change. What’s more, she finds herself torn in a war between the Catholics and Protestants while also being pressured to produce an heir. As numerous men offer their hand to Kristina, she finds herself drawn to her foster mother, countess Ebba Leijonhufvud (Sarah Gadon).
The primary focus of The Girl King is Kristina’s gender and sexual identity. This is where the movie really shines, depicting her relationship with Ebba, who she refers to as Belle. Kristina knows how to set a bear trap and clean a musket, but has trouble expressing herself romantically. As confused as Kristina is, she’s also 100% certain of her passion for Belle. The scenes between Buska and Gadon range from uncomfortable to genuinely sexy. You completely believe these two are discovering their feelings for one another. With all eyes on Kristina, however, it appears impossible for the queen to follow her heart or brain.
From a performance and character standpoint, The Girl King is a compelling picture. However, it isn’t too compelling from a filmmaking perspective. While Mika Kaurismäki’s direction is by no means awful, his film never feels all that cinematic. Screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard adapted this material from a play he wrote and it really shows. The staging is restrained and the editing feels awkward at times with abrupt scene transitions. For a period piece like this to stand out, it could’ve used a director like Kenneth Branagh, Joe Wright, or even Amma Asante of Belle.
Although The Girl King doesn’t entirely function as a film, it does work as a character study. The movie understands the subject at its center and presents her in a thought-provoking light. This is largely thanks to Buska, who captures all of Kristina’s strength, forward thinking, and stubbornness in a multi-layered portrayal. Even when her dialog becomes a little too sappy, she totally sells it. Something like Todd Haynes’ Carol may be a much more complete feminist movie, but The Girl King is still a memorable film about a woman who mustn’t be forgotten.