[Film Review] Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina poster

Title: Queen Christina
Year: 1933
Country: USA
Language: English, Spanish
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance, History
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers:
H.M. Harwood
Salza Viertel
Margaret P. Levino
S.N. Behrman
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Cast:
Greta Garbo
John Gilbert
Ian Keith
Lewis Stone
Elizabeth Young
C. Aubrey Smith
Reginald Owen
Georges Renavent
David Torrence
Ferdinand Munier
Akim Tamiroff
Rating: 7.9/10

Queen Christina 1933.jpg

A posteriori, it is plumb conceivable why Garbo proactively facilitated a biopic of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626- 1689) at the peak of her games, not just because of her parentage, our Swedish goddess must have been profoundly attracted by the similarity between them in a more personal way, the uncanny life paths both chose, Queen Christina abdicated her throne and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1654, whereas Garbo, bowed out from the screen once and for all in 1941 at the age of 35, both unmarried and childless, no to mention their alleged queer proclivity.

Raised as a boy as an heir of the throne, Christina becomes the Queen at the age of mere 6 when her father lays down his life in the Thirty Years’ War, her pacific attitude takes shape during the drawn-out warfare, and an adult Christina yearns for some sort of freedom unshackled by her monarchical duties and patriotic notions. During a secret outing under the disguise of a young man, Christina bumps into a Spanish envoy Antonio (Gilbert), who is on his way to meet the Queen in the capital, and after a jocose gender-revealing episode apropos of sharing a bed in a snowbound inn, they are smitten with each other, but Christina withholds her real identity, only to Antonio’s chagrin when they meet again formally, he is tasked with a marriage proposal from the King of Spain, but Christina reassures him that she only loves him and declines the proposal.

Impelled by her excitable and xenophobic subjects, who are whipped up by the envious Count Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie (Keith) and demand a pure-blood heir from their queen and Antonio should be expelled from Sweden immediately, Christina has a cardinal decision to make, a choice between her birthright responsibilities and her own free will. but what awaits her is a so-near-and-yet-so-far scenario due to a sorry quirk of fate and bad swordsmanship.

Here, under the ever-spectacular guidance of Rouben Mamoulian, Garbo makes the most of her epicene carriage to redefine what femininity entails: sharing a pre-Code mouth-on-mouth kiss with Christina’s favorite countess Ebba Sparre (Young), washing her face with a fistful of snow to embrace a new day, toying with fresh grapes and intoxicatingly memorizing everything in the room she has been sharing with Antonio; and when her duty calls, she is a gallant sovereign who can placate her people with words only, and in the climatic abdication scene, she augustly twins steely resolution with a thin but delectable air of reluctance.

John Gilbert, a silent-era matinee idol in his penultimate picture, who failed to sail through the transition to the sound cinema, and would die prematurely at the age of 38 three years later when his health is devastated by chronic alcoholism. In his fourth collaboration with Garbo, to whom he also stroke a romantic relationship before, Gilbert remains game and spry, but has no will to countervail Garbo’s towering pizzazz and charm. Only Lewis Stone, as the loyal statesman Axel Oxenstierna, manages to eke out a sustaining presence of great gravitas and gutted despondency on the side lines.

Mamoulian’s direction is meticulous but never unwieldy, his frictionless camera movement effectually counterbalances the film’s lofty setting, and the masterful soft focus on Garbo’s immaculate visage alone can leave QUEEN CHRISTINA enshrined as the ne plus ultra in her filmography, not to mention it is also such an emotional paean about pursuing what one’s heart desires, a freedom that few are lucky enough to own, shored up by its star’s unbowed strength and volition.

referential entries: Ernst Lubitsch’s NINOTCHKA (1939, 7.3/10); Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931, 8.0/10)

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