Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Girl King (2016) - Movie Review


The plot: Christina (Malin Buska) has assumed the throne as Queen of Sweden at the age of 18, presided over by chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist). While trying to establish peace in the midst of a war between the Catholics and the Protestants, her additional stipulations in regards to learning and the arts cause unease amongst her peers as to whether or not she is fit to rule. However, as her connection with her lady-in-waiting Ebba (Sarah Gadon) grows stronger, it seems that her royal court is just getting started in finding reasons to deem her unfit.

The acting here is… strange. Strange in how consistent it is across the entire cast list, and yet wildly inconsistent in terms of what kind of performance they’re likely to give in any given scene. It’s like everyone here went through an extensive acting course taught in tandem by John Malkovich and Tommy Wiseau, resulting in performances that fluctuate between emphatically robotic and gloriously hammy. Buska probably comes out the best overall, as she does have her moments of dead-eyed delivery but she knows enough about her character to be able to channel her love for the arts and disdain for convention to make for some good moments. That, and her fangirling over Descartes can be quite adorable. Nyqvist is rather one-note in how under-handed he is, Gadon is passive to the point of soulless for the most part, which given her work on films like A Dangerous Method is hardly surprising, and Martina Gedeck as Christina’s mother Maria Eleonora is Joan Crawford-levels of bombastic lunacy, creating easily one of the most consistently mindfragging performances I’ve seen all year.

The film opens with Maria Eleonora lying with her husband, who has been dead for two years, and holding his heart in a glass case for all to see. As confounding as this start is, it ends up setting up an appropriate tone for a film that is steadfastly lacking in subtlety across the board. If this is some form of cultural sense of communication that just isn’t translating well, then fine and I at least welcome that possibility, but everyone being this direct with their intentions and desires is rather off-putting. If this is accurate to her real life, then this will likely go down alongside works like Mommie Dearest in terms of being more understandable once you realize that the reality was actually that ridiculous; if it isn’t, then this devolves into Anonymous-style conspiratorial BS, and poorly-hidden conspiratorial BS at that once we get into why people don’t want Christina in charge and the ultimate fate of Descartes.

Now, there is a reason why everyone is letting their emotions run wild in this story, as one of the main recurring themes here is human desire and whether or not it should be tempered. When it isn’t taking time out to aggrandise how cultured Christina is, and how totally unsophisticated the Swedes are by contrast because civility is far from this film’s mind, it gets into long musings about the human heart and how those at its mercy should handle the emotions it gives them. I have no issue with this as a narrative concept, but as it is realized in this film, it only serves to show that maybe human desire should be suppressed; it’d apparently make people less insane, for one.

So, this film collectively leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to relationships; what about the one between the titular queen and her lady-in-waiting? Well, it’s barely a footnote. I mean, even considering it’s submerged in a sea of bombast, it barely even registers. Yeah, a female character shouldn’t be defined by her relationships; I get that and I’m more than willing to champion it. That. Said. When the film makes it such a point to thematically talk about love and desire, would it have made too much sense to have this particular relationship have some real punch to it? Then again, it’s pretty dire from what we do get, making the queen come across like a sexual predator more than anything else in how she acts around Ebba, barely able to contain her desires. It’s like the film itself is ashamed of its own intentions, something made worse by how their first real love scene is staged. In a decision that will probably continue to baffle me for decades to come, they first consummate their love while literally lying on top of a book described in the preceding conversation as ‘Satan’s bible’.

All in all, this film is completely bonkers. Helmed by actors who only seem capable of portraying no emotion or all of the emotion in a single scene, and writing that serves fit to enable their wildly deranged performances, this feels like it took all the dramatic shark-jumping of past historical epics like Rome, The Tudors and even Caligula and compressed them into a single work. It may have a solid conception of the lead character, and she certainly comes across like someone who deserves to be highlighted on the big screen, but everything around it is made of ridiculous. I’d honestly recommend checking it out yourself just to check out one of the most enjoyably over-the-top features of the year.

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