Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

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Queen Christina of Sweden is a fascinating character; the only surviving child of the great Gustav II Adolph, she inherited the throne when he died in 1632. Once she came of age, she led Sweden out of the Thirty Years’ War and generally established a reputation as one of Europe’s weirdest and most interesting monarchs. She loved philosophy and learning, corresponded with Descartes, had all sorts of court intrigues, rejected the dress and behaviour expected of her as a woman, refused to marry and ultimately converted to Catholicism and abdicated the throne.

The problem of this film is, of course, that Christina’s actual life is much stranger and more interesting than this film wants to make it. It has a lot of good bits, but ultimately a voyage of philosophical discovery just isn’t all that cinematic an experience. It has a couple of additional problems: it’s in English, but most of the actors aren’t native English speakers, so it feels a little stilted and clumsy. It doesn’t feel like it can assume much knowledge about Swedish history on the part of its audience (probably fair), so it explains everything from the ground up, necessarily simplifying it. It’s also committed to telling as much of the story of Christina’s reign as possible, which means that everything feels a little … compressed.

Of course, the thing that attracted the most attention about this film when it came out is that its central love story is between Christina and one of her ladies in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre. This is one of those suspected relationships that is impossible to prove but looks not unlikely, and it seems to be the thing about this film that made the most lasting impression on fans and critics — both because it’s a historical drama with a relationship between two women at its centre (rare enough) and because it’s the only part of the plot that the film really gives any weight to, which is weird considering there’s all this fate-of-nations stuff going on.

But there are discrepancies in this plotline, presumably created to make Christina more sympathetic. For instance, in the film Sparre’s marriage is shown as something ginned up to separate Christina from her lover. In reality it happened at Christina’s instigation, which suggests a more complex attitude on the queen’s part.

So The Girl King feels rushed, and rushed in a way that gives it a weird emotional tone; it can only hit the highlights, so everything is turned up to 11 all the time. It lurches from exposition to crisis to confrontation to more exposition, with too little time to let its setting and characters breathe. It has some good performances, including Malin Buska as Christina and Patrick Bauchau as Descartes, but overall it feels jumbled. And it still leaves out most of her life, an eventful time that would just retroactively complicate things further.

I did like the little touches: the flock of sheep outside the cathedral was my favourite.

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

There’s a certain enterprising charm to the way that Netflix UK sells slightly shopworn programmes as exciting new things. Case in point: Saints and Strangers, a two-part historical drama about the colonisation of Massachusetts first shown on the National Geographic channel over Thanksgiving 2015.

It’s one of your prestige historical dramas, two feature-length episodes with lots of grey mist and lovely South African scenery. It’s got some medium-sized names in it: Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha McElhone, Raoul Trujillo and the inescapable Ray Stevenson.

The interesting thing about dramatising “the first Thanksgiving” is that the nicest way you can play it is as a tragedy — after all, this initial moment of rrrreeeeelatively peaceful interaction between Europeans and Native Americans is all going to go to bloody hell by the end of the century. The show does address that point — including a real sucker punch at the end in which they reveal that an adorable moppet who appears during the first Thanksgiving scenes grows up to be Josiah Winslow, the colony governor who commanded the English forces during King Philip’s War.

As a drama shown on the National Geographic Channel, Saints and Strangers does seem to take its educational mission pretty seriously. In some ways, this is a good thing — it presents quite a complex, ambiguous image of Squanto, for instance — but in other ways it’s a weakness. After all, the real history, by dint of being history, resists convenient narrativisation. We’re left with Kartheiser and Stevenson being agonised about the morality of their action, which is … a little sickly-feeling, since we know how it all ends. I am not in a position to say that they didn’t agonise, but there is something a little distasteful about retroactive agonising over convenient deaths.

Like a lot of historical shows, this one struggles with the dialogue. All the English-speakers speak in a schmancy, convoluted way, talking about how things are diminutive or how they will unleash a wrath of violence or whatever, but it only occasionally sounds like something someone from the 17th century might say. And they say ’tis. And then every so often they ask someone if they’re OK. I mean, I get that it’s not going to be Shakespeare, but all you would have to do is pick half a dozen expressions that were in use in 1620 and not in the modern day and use those strategically. That or just have them speak in modern English. I know it’s a difficult line to walk, but they sound like LARPers used to sound.

Native American parts are played by Native American actors speaking Abenaki, a related language to the one the locals would have actually spoken. So that’s good, especially since it means we get to see Raoul Trujillo playing an older, wryer version of his usual badass warrior.

Overall: it’s OK. It’s definitely a bit of a pageant, and I wouldn’t move it to the top of you list, but it has some good bits and it looks nice.

I gotta say, though, I like Ron Livingston, a bigger fan you won’t find, but I don’t know that he’s quite right for his part in this.

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.

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Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

Trip report: Discarded History