The Girl King (2015)

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Thanks to the Mill Valley Film Festival, I was able to see The Girl King (2015), a film that takes on the biography of inquisitive, role-defying Queen Christina of Sweden. The story has been told a few times before, most notably with Greta Garbo starring in Queen Christina (1933). This new version sticks much closer to the historical facts, while trying to find an emotional understanding in the characters that brings the story more into the modern era. It’s a valiant effort, not always successful, but not cliched, trite, or predicable as often happens with inward-looking interpretations of historical tales. As the Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki said, “The Girl King is not intended as a traditional epic costume film but as an intense, actor-centered, psychological drama about one of the most interesting and mysterious personalities of all time.”

The Girl King (2015)

Little-girl Kristina in a fortunate biggins.

While the movie begins with the death of Christina’s father, King Gustav II, most of the action takes place in the 1650s, from Christina’s coronation through her abdication in 1654. The film gives a rough outline of the history of Christina’s life, covering all the major points with decent accuracy. Her mother was crazy, her father’s councilor practically bullied Christina (spelled with a “K” in this movie) as a ruler, while she was very studious and loved the hell out of reading books, she even studied with René Decartes for a time, although they weren’t BFFs (and yes, he died in Sweden, but of natural causes, and I doubt he was a surgeon either).

The Girl King (2015)

Queen Kristina & René Decartes (not a drunken fart).

The romantic relationship between Christina and her lady in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre is a central part of the film, but it’s a slow build to a mild spark, not exactly the hot girl-on-girl action the previews might hint at. Honestly, it’s a lot more believable in the historical context the way this movie portrays their relationship. There’s even a hint that the queen took advantage of power dynamics to get her way with “la belle comtesse.” But her lesbian or bisexual tendencies are the least of her worries, since she’s not fully committed to Lutheranism and she’s depleting the country’s coffers by buying books and art.

The Girl King (2015)

Promo shot of Ebba & Kristina.

OK, OK, go read the Wikipedia page on Queen Christina, because really, the movie hits all the highlights mentioned there — just adding a bunch of Decartes text in the form of letters that are meant to give Deep Meaningful Insight into the queen. It’s clunky in places and sweet in others. YMMV. Let’s talk about the costumes, shall we?

The Girl King (2015)

Ebba & Kristina romp about in the snow a lot.

The Costumes in The Girl King

The movie was filmed mostly in Finland and a little bit in Germany, and the director and crew are mostly Finnish. Costume designer Marjatta Nissinen has primarily worked in Finnish film and TV, and while that includes a few period pieces, I get the impression that this was her first big historical production. I also get the impression that the budget wasn’t super high for The Girl King — some of the fabric choices struck me as less than historically accurate, there’s an overall lack of layers to the outfits, garments have minimal or odd trimming, hats are floppy and missing wired edges, and there seemed to be a rationing of hairpins on set. Despite these nitpicks, the overall look fits the 1650s period and is appropriate to the mood of the film and the characters.

The Girl King (2015)

The minor male characters generally have historically accurate suits, including great lace collars & cuffs.

What I found especially nice was the obvious references to period portraits of Queen Christina and Countess Ebba Sparre in the movie costumes. The designer didn’t go off into fantasyland, she used actual source material. The execution may suffer due to budget constraints, but you can clearly see the historical influences, and I really appreciate that.

The Girl King (2015)

Countess Ebba, sitting for her portrait, & the actual painting by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653.

The Girl King (2015)

I think the film was trying for a modern take on this 1650s portrait of Queen Christina by Sébastien Bourdon.

Christina wears women’s gowns for formal occasions and men’s pants and vests at other times. There are a few scenes where the pants look terribly modern — from skinny leggings (maybe leather?) to wide palazzo pants, instead of historical breeches. But her gowns have a good historical silhouette, though I’m not convinced about the neckline placement on her or any of the women’s gowns. The bodices do appear to be boned, and in various undressing scenes, no corset or stays are worn underneath (also, no smock / shift / chemise, ouch). The only corset / stays that are shown in the film are worn by Christina over a man’s shirt with man’s pants when she’s fencing. It’s not the most historically accurate look (I think it should be smock, corset, then shirt), but I can totally see why it’s worn this way for the film — it gives a very gender-bending impression of a “girl king.”

The Girl King (2015)

With her father’s sword … & a very sparkly vest.

The Girl King (2015)

Victory!

Other costumes of note include those worn by Christina’s mother. She’s certifiably insane, both historically and in the movie, so she gets really wacky clothes to make her mental state clear. The ginormous ruffs she wears when mourning King Gustav and to Christina’s coronation were out of fashion, so it makes her look suitably loony. And the bright red ensemble she wears to harangue Christina about getting married is gorgeously ridiculous.

The Girl King (2015)

Kristina’s mother in semi-permanent mourning.

The Girl King (2015)

Mommy never loved you!

The Girl King (2015)

A promotional shot of the white gown Kristina wears under her coronation robes.

The Girl King (2015)

Kristina’s coronation, in the film & in a period painting at the Swedish Royal Armory.

The Girl King (2015)

For Christina’s coronation, her cousin Charles Gustav wears a purple velvet cape that’s a straight-up reproduction of the extant cape at the Swedish Royal Armory (cape photo in b/w, matching hat not recreated in the movie, but included for color reference).

The Girl King (2015)

This 1640s portrait of the queen by Jacob Henry Elbfas appears to be the inspiration for her crown early in the movie.

The Girl King (2015)

Countess Ebba

The Girl King (2015)

One of the gowns given as a present to Kristina is a dead ringer for this 1560 Anthonis Mor portrait of Elisabeth de Valois.

The Girl King (2015)

This gold sequin trim on Johan’s doublet bothers me.

The Girl King (2015)

Kristina’s “Screw you, Martin Luther” dress.

The Girl King (2015)

After letting her hair hang down the whole movie, we get this at the end…

 

Overall, The Girl King is a solid biopic of an unusual historical figure, featuring mostly well-realized historical costumes. It’s worth watching primarily because the topic, time period, and setting are rarely seen on film, and this production was done with care by a team highly invested in the story (even if the budget investment was small). Neither an American or UK wide-release date have been confirmed yet, and the movie is currently on the film festival circuit. News sources suggest that The Girl King might be distributed to theaters in December 2015 or spring 2016, so keep an eye out!

 

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

19 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Thanks for the recommendation. Christina of Sweden was an interesting person and your review makes that clear. The movie sounds worthwhile. I’ve seen the Garbo one but it was years ago. This sounds more true to history. But does it show her conversion to Catholicism?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      This movie does feel closer to the history than the Garbo movie (tho’ I love Garbo’s movie for, well, Garbo!). And it does cover Kristina’s conversion — she even wrestles with Lutheranism as a child; not sure how accurate that is, but it works as foreshadowing in the story.

      Reply
  2. mmcquown

    Certainly a worthy subject for a new film. Looking forward.The rapiers looked right in the fencing scene. Gustav Adolph carried several swords, mostly of the type with Pappenheimer hilts, all of which are in museums.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I get the impression that the costumer & production designers studied everything extant in the Swedish Royal Armory, where many items of Queen Christina’s time are still available :)

      Reply
      • mmcquown

        I’ve seen two Pappenheimer hilt rapiers carried by Gus, but Kristina wouldn’t have had the use of either for fencing practice. There were any number of rapier types at the, time, but by the latter half of the 17th century, they were getting shorter and lighter. One would assume that blunted blades were used for practice, nobody wanting to kill the royals. Hilts were also getting simpler in design.

        Reply
        • susimetsa

          The problem here is that – if I’m not mistaken – the sword in the movie is actually _meant_ to be Gustavus Adolphus’ sword (not sure though, I’ll only go and see the movie tonight). Nevertheless, the blade in this Hanwei “reproduction” is clearly of a later period (much bendier than period blades) and the sword in whole is about 500 grams lighter than the original.

          Reply
          • mmcquown

            I think Gustavus’s weapon is mounted with a sword blade, rather than a rapier blade, which was often done at the time. I’m going to see if I can find a good article on swords for this column, or write something myself. At that time, people might practice with live blades, but they would be somehow blunted, or ‘foiled’

            Reply
            • susimetsa

              Rapier was not such a strict category back in those days as it is today. Narrower blades were used by civilians, but in war the cavalry naturally preferred the wider blades of pappenheimers and such swords – that might be called sword rapiers these days. But that’s beside the point. Here’s a nice article about the original sword and its failed reproduction:
              https://myarmoury.com/review_casi_gustav.html

              Reply
        • susimetsa

          Yes, I just saw the film yesterday evening and I was pretty impressed with what they had done. I could forgive them for the sword, in fact. ;)

          It would have been great if they had had a bit more money for set decoration, though.

          Reply
  3. mmcquown

    Susi– Bill Grandy pretty much knows whereof he speaks. As you note, the definitions of weapons types were far looser than than now. Somewhere I know I have seen a picture of Gus’s other Pappenheimer

    Reply
  4. annelifriedner

    Are you kidding? Like a lot of young Swedish nerd girls me and a few friends had high hopes about this film. The trailer seemed EPIC, but it was just… wow… the cheesiest thing I’ve seen for years. Kristina is some kind of a queer icon in Sweden, especially among women, and this movie made her totally ridiculous and without any agency of her own.
    Plus the costumes really, really bother me.

    I’m sad about this, because I looked so much forward to this film.

    Reply
  5. Aileen Brasche

    How nice to see her in film! One of my ancestors was actually knighted by Queen Christina and granted some land in Finland. There’s a bit of a family tradition of Maria as a middle name, taken from the name she used after moving to Italy and converting to the catholic faith: Maria Alexander.

    Reply

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