Queen Christina of Sweden is perhaps one of the most unconventional monarchs in history. Though her reign spanned only a decade during the 17th Century, her story continues to inspire intrigue and spark debate. Now a new film, The Girl King, paints a modern portrait of the legendary queen, who led a daring life of non-conformity, well before her time.
Elected queen at the age of six after her father King Gustav II Adolph died in battle, Christina was raised and educated as a boy until she took the throne in 1632 at the age of 18. The King, who requested his daughter be raised as a prince, was apparently very fond of Christina before his death. She grew up in androgynous dress, and refused to abide by the expectations for women of her time, vehemently opposing marriage and motherhood. “Still today she would be very ahead of her time. Of course it’s a period film, but I always saw a young woman in front of me who could also be living today,” said the film’s director, Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki in an interview with Women in the World.
Christina inherited the crown at a time when Sweden was embroiled in the 30 Years War (1618-1648), one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. Surrounded on all sides by men, she quickly asserted herself as a capable and decisive politician. From her early teens, she had been conducting council meetings herself. “She was very curious and strong, and very manipulative of all these men around her,” said Kaurismäki. During her rule, Christina’s ultimate goal was peace for Sweden, at any cost.
Apart from her political expertise, Christina is known as one of the most brilliant and intellectual women of her time. She had an unquenchable thirst for education and a passion for music, art and alchemy. Rising each morning at dawn, she studied under French philosopher René Descartes and a number of renowned foreign writers, musicians and scholars. Under her rule, the first Swedish newspaper and country-wide school ordinance were established.
Perhaps the most widely debated and mysterious aspect of Christina’s life was her sexuality. In addition to refusing to marry or have children, Christina had a deeply intimate and passionate relationship with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre, whom she called “Belle.” Though there’s still speculation about the nature of their relationship, she wrote extensively about Sparre’s beauty, and referred to her as a bedfellow. “It was actually quite normal for women to have intimate relationships at the time, because all the men were at war. So I think it was tolerated, but it wasn’t recognized as a lesbian relationship,” said Kaurismäki.
This isn’t the first film adaptation of Christina’s life, but it’s the first to approach her sexuality head on. In the 1933 film, Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo, Christina’s relationship with Sparre is passed over, focusing instead on her relationship with a Spanish envoy named Antonio. “Garbo originally wanted to make a film that depicted this love story between Ebba and Christina, but Hollywood wasn’t ready for it at the time,” said Kaurismäki. “I think this would have been more what Greta Garbo wanted to do, to show this love story. Christina wrote in her memoirs that it was the only real love of her life.”
In yet another unexpected move that stunned her advisors and the public, Christina gave up her crown in 1654 at the young age of 27. Though she cited illness and the insurmountable pressure of queendom, many suspected it was her aversion to marriage that led her to forfeit the throne. There’s another theory, too. In the lead-up to her abdication, Christina secretly converted to Catholicism, and left a climate of strict Lutheranism for Rome, where she continued to immerse herself in education and the arts as a permanent guest of the Vatican.
In the world of filmmaking, with a growing number of Hollywood actresses raising their voices about a lack of compelling female roles, The Girl King‘s portrayal of Queen Christina is unique. Though the film doesn’t tell Christina’s story in full, it unabashedly depicts her exploration of sexuality and the isolation and confusion that resulted. At its premiere at the Montreal Film Festival in September, the film took out Best Actress and the Audience Award for Most Popular Film. “This isn’t a typical female role, in Hollywood or anywhere,” said Kaurismäki. “We did our part to make a different kind of film. It was clear from the very beginning that Christina’s story is very unique. She’s in no way submissive. She’s the boss.”
The Girl King will be released in select theatres on December 4th, and on DVD/VOD on Wolfe Video on December 8th.