Thursday, April 7, 2011

MM Movie Review: Queen Christina

For some reason, I feel the need to repeat in blatant fashion what most of you who have read my reviews probably already know. I am an admittedly biased reviewer. There are some topics and genres that I just *like* and thus I can enjoy watching a movie that is pretty bad even while noting the many things wrong with it. That is not to say that “Queen Christina” is a bad movie, in fact I think it is a pretty darn good movie, but there is also a great deal wrong with it in the historical department. However, I like royal-themed movies (especially about the lesser known figures) and finding a well made, well done royal bio-pic about someone other than the usual English monarchs like Henry VIII or Elizabeth I means that I am willing to overlook some glaring historical inaccuracies -though I cannot help but note them and get a little worked up about them when they (invariably) happen. But, on to the film:

“Queen Christina” is the story of the reign of the controversial Queen Christina of Sweden. The film was made in 1933 and stars Greta Garbo in the title role. The director was Rouben Mamoulian of “Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” fame (I also liked “Blood & Sand” but I’m *very* biased on that one). To say that “Queen Christina” is based on the life of the famous Swedish queen would probably be going way too far. It might be more correct to say ‘vaguely inspired by’. I have a hard time with this one because the history is so terrible you almost have to just overlook that whole aspect. It is as if they really were not even trying. At all. It also helps that Greta Garbo is spectacular in this, absolutely at her best (and how fitting to have a Swedish actress play a Swedish queen -sometimes I’ve been tempted to think Hollywood had some sort of rule against that). She is stunning, she is totally convincing and shows herself to simply be a great actress. That goes a very long way as well.

We are first introduced to Christina as a little girl who, upon the death of her father; the Protestant champion of the Thirty Years War Gustavus Adolphus, is ushered in amongst the notables of Sweden to be crowned ‘king’. I don’t know who the child actress was there but she did a good job too. The film lets you know that this is when Sweden was at the top of her game, the dominant power in northern Europe but also stretched dangerously thin, getting by on sheer skill and determination. The coronation scene was one of my favorites -as such usually are, and the little actress was very winning as she delivered her speech, proudly and rather annoyed when she forgot a certain line. From there we flash forward to Queen Christina all grown up and racing through the Swedish countryside on horseback, wearing masculine attire -which is perfectly historically accurate. That, at least, the film does get right.

Sweden is still at war, the pressure for a royal wedding is growing and the strain on the public is evident, to the Queen if no one else. Again, this part the film does pretty much get right. The Queen was fond of riding horses, did dress like a man and was very interested in art, philosophy, the sciences and so on. She was reportedly not nearly so attractive as Greta Garbo, but we can forgive that. In the film, the Queen is distressed at how much the ongoing war is costing, both in lives and treasure, and she sees no end to it. She deplores wasting lives, talent and money on destruction rather than more artistic and intellectual pursuits and she becomes determined to make peace. This does not go over well, but the Queen is adamant and fears that if the war continues the Swedish peasantry will be wiped out and they will have to hire foreign mercenaries to fight their battles. The Queen is also in no hurry to marry. She is frustrated by the constant constraints her royal position places on her and fears that marriage will only take even more freedom from her. However, her ministers are adamant that she must marry and Prince Charles, her cousin and a hero in the war against the Catholics, is the preferred choice.

If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you probably have. The story of the overwrought royal longing for personal freedom is a story we have all heard before and, I must confess, it does wear on me. I always detected a hint of republicanism in such portrayals; the idea that royals need to be “rescued” from the monarchy. In any event, this is where the movie takes a dramatic u-turn away from historical reality. A suave, debonair ambassador arrives to convey a message from the King of Spain and unknowingly meets the Queen when his carriage becomes stuck in the snow. Thinking, by her attire, she is a local nobleman the two become fast friends at a local inn where she questions him about the great Spanish painters, life in a foreign country and all the rest. How anyone could ever mistake Greta Garbo for a boy is quite beyond the realm of possibility but we will invoke the suspension of disbelief on that one. Forced to share a room the ambassador finally learned the gender of his new buddy and the two spend several days at the inn completely infatuated with each other.

Nothing of the sort ever happened of course, Queen Christina never had any affairs that we know of, but now the film has an illicit romance to carry it through. The ambassador is rather shocked and displeased when he learns that his new best girl is actually the Queen of Sweden when he finally appears for an audience. To make matters worse there is an unscrupulous courtier who also had his hat set for the Queen and he makes the ambassador his inveterate enemy. He whips up an angry mob to howl for the blood of the Spaniard and in one of the most memorable scenes of the film the Queen confronts her unhappy subjects and through her courage and charm turns their angry protests into loyal cheers. However, her beau is captured by the courtier and threatens to kill him if the Queen does not send him away. Forced to do so, immediately thereafter the Queen announces her abdication, to the great sorrow of her people, and plans to run away with the ambassador to live happily ever after at his coastal hacienda in Spain.

Again, this is complete fiction. The actual reason that Queen Christina abdicated was in order to become a Catholic, something not even hinted at in the movie, and it was not a spur of the moment decision. In fact, the Queen prepared long in advance for her abdication in order for there to be a smooth transition and as little fuss as possible. She left her country out of conviction, not romantic infatuation. The ending of the movie, I will spare the details so as not to ruin it for those yet to see it, left me frankly shocked and a little bewildered. The acting is good, the story moves along nicely, there are a number of fantastic shots but it simply has very, very little to do with the actual Queen Christina who once ruled Sweden. The movie is also a little risqué in parts (a warning to the people of Kansas) as this was before the era of the MPAA Production Code and filmmakers could get a way with more. There is no nudity or bad language of course, but naughty behavior is implied that would not have been allowed in later years.

The filmmakers actually hired an expert to ensure that nothing in the film would offend the current Swedish Royal Family though they seem to have completely ignored his advice. However, the queen portrayed in the film is portrayed, I think, in a very positive way. She genuinely cares for her country and her people (at least until leaving them in the name of love) and come across as a very sympathetic character. This has, I think, more to do with Greta Garbo than anything else and the film is certainly better at showing off her skills as a great actress than it is in telling the real story of Queen Christina. The movie does get some aspects of her character right but, overall, pretty well misses the point of what Queen Christina was all about. That being said, I cannot help but like the movie. It is well cast, well shot, well directed and has some great dialogue in it and Greta Garbo gives a masterful performance. It has that air about it of being a “classic”. I simply think that the same cast and crew could have made an even better movie had they stuck to the true story of the most controversial Swedish Queen who once said, “I love the storm and fear the calm”. Indeed.


  1. "The actual reason that Queen Christina abdicated was in order to become a Catholic, something not even hinted at in the movie [...]" - how can this be than a watchable/likeable movie? The most important thing about Queen Christina IS that she turned Catholic! It's like making a WWII-movie without any reference to the Jews and the Shoah or how evil the Germans were... xD

  2. As with any work of art, it is a matter of taste ultimately. For me, it probably made a difference that I knew that going in so I was not even expecting them to say anything about that. There is also a point wherein a work is so far from reality that you just view it as fiction and judge it alone.

  3. Lets face reality. In 1933 there was still a lot of Hatred for Catholisism, and so a COnversion woudl notbe seen as good. Besides, ROmance sells.

    While this doesn't excuse Historical error, t does explain it.

    Today of ocruse it'd be some misguied Love for Democracy or how horrible Monarhcy is tht prompts the Abdication, as leavign the Thrine over Religious Reasons woudl be unheard of to todays secularised audiences.

  4. Before even reading on past title, yes, this is great!

    When I was in Rome 1986, week before Pentecost, one of the perks of St Peter's was her tomb.

    I was preparing for conversion, and seeing her grave so close to that of St Peter's own was in a way telling me, I was doing the right thing.

    Now, back to your review!

  5. Wait, is the movie THAT bad?

    Intellectual company of Descartes out. Erotic of beau latino in ... I am shocked. I might perhaps spare myself the ordeal of seeing it!

  6. The filmmakers actually hired an expert to ensure that nothing in the film would offend the current Swedish Royal Family though they seem to have completely ignored his advice.

    I am pretty afraid the Bernadottes are not aces in standing up completely for the honour of the Catholic Church.

    They started out as usurpers, and first couple the man apostasised. For the throne, without asking the new Queen to follow his example.

    Probably really telling the story of the conversion would have been worse, since back then the "blasphemy paragraph" of our legislation, put to some good use when Strindberg had lampooned marriage etc, was also used to muzzle Catholicism insofar as implying a critique of Protestantism.


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