Too much history in The Girl King

B Historical drama

Written by Michel Marc Bouchard

Directed by Mika Kaurismäki

Few screenwriters can effectively boil down a monarch’s career into 106 minutes. To do it right, you have to decide on what is important, create composite characters, and rearrange the order of events. In other words, you have to turn fact into fiction.

And that’s exactly what screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard failed to do in this biopic of Sweden’s 17th-century monarch, Queen Kristina (Malin Buska). In less than two hours, we get glimpses of her insane mother, her desire to uplift her subjects, her religious wavering, her diplomatic work to end the 30-Year War, her many suitors, her friendship with the great philosopher René Descartes, and her sexual and romantic relationship with one of her ladies in waiting.

That would have made a fantastic 12-hour television miniseries. But cramming all that into a movie you can watch in one sitting gets confusing. You can’t track all of the characters and plot threads. It becomes an incoherent collection of scenes.

Early on, Kristina announces that she wants to educate your subjects and eliminate illiteracy from the Swedish Empire. if she succeeds–or even tries–we don’t know about it. She sets out to bring peace to Europe (war between Catholics and Protestants has been raging for 30 years). How does she do it? By sending an ambassador to Germany, and an army to conquer Prague (seemingly to take books as war booty).

But here’s the dilemma: It’s an incoherent collection of really good scenes. If you screened any ten-minute section, you’d be left desperately wanting to watch the entire movie. So in some ways, it’s a really good film. And that makes picture’s weaknesses all the more frustrating.

Director Mika Kaurismäki rightly centers The Girl King around Malin Buska ‘s magnificent performance in the title role. The story takes her from adolescence to well into her late 20s, and puts her through several emotional wringers. She shows outer strength often mixed with inner fear. She’s resolved, confused, doubtful, lusty, and scared of her own lust. She takes off her clothes, wields a sword, and falls off a horse (not all at the same time). This is really Buska’s film, and she carries it well on her young shoulders.

If anything carried me through the mess of story lines, it was Buska’s performance and the sympathy she generates with the audience. You want her to succeed–and not only because she wants to bring education and peace to Scandinavia. You want her to succeed because she’s a very young woman in an impossible situation.

The film’s best scenes deal with her forbidden relationship with her maiden in waiting, Ebba (Sarah Gadon). We’re never told how far they actually go with each other, but it’s very clear that even their thoughts are crimes in 17th century Europe. When this part of the story ends, the film feels that it should be over. It isn’t.

There’s a lot of good in The Girl King. But considering that the filmmakers were contracted to make a feature film of moderate length, they should have thought harder about the story they wanted to tell.

When I saw this film at the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival, Kaurismäki and Buska gave a Q&A after the screening. The director proudly told us that the film was very accurate historically. I think that was the problem. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “God never wrote a good play in His life.”