Thursday 28 February 2013

Movie Review: Queen Christina (1933)

At the height of her world-wide popularity as the screen' most enigmatic star, Greta Garbo took on the role of Queen Christina, Sweden's mysterious and unconventional 17th century monarch. Garbo delivers a beguiling performance, elevating the movie to a dreamy, luxurious romance.

When her father the king dies in battle, Christina is elevated to the throne at age six. Demonstrating an independent, antithetic attitude from a young age, Christina grows up to become a popular leader. Still only in her twenties, she negotiates peace from a position of strength and favours reading and promoting the arts and culture rather than warmongering.

Christina resists pressure to marry the heroic warrior Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), and fends off the attentions of Count Magnus (Ian Keith). Instead she prefers the company of Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) and manly pursuits, including aggressive horseback riding, wearing pants, and handling weapons. Out riding in the countryside to temporarily escape the burdens of the throne, Christina meets and falls in love with Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert). They spend a heavenly night at a secluded inn, before Christina has to return to reality and balance the unexpected romance with the demands of her people to marry a Swede.

The Samuel Behrman script is only loosely based on the actual Christina. The central romance with Antonio is fiction, but here serves to emphasize Christina's strong non-conformist streak. Her refusal to pursue the traditional path of marrying a noble Swede to produce a suitable heir is accurate, but the movie adds the scandalous romance to a Spaniard as an exclamation point.

Greta Garbo's performance is commanding, effortlessly dominating all her scenes with a physical and mystical presence that demands obedience. Christina's only enemies are boredom, the trivialities of governance, and the shackles of tradition. Garbo conveys Christina's dismissiveness of convention with salient eyes, a confident and imperious tone of voice, and physical gestures that hint at both royal lethargy and endless patience with those of lesser intellect.

Garbo embraces the challenges of the character with adroit fluidity, adopting the Queen's male disguise with a glint in her eye and snuggling comfortably with hints of lesbian tendencies in the relationship with Ebba Sparre.

Director Rouben Mamoulian allows his cameras to worship Garbo, and confirms her regal status in two justifiably celebrated scenes. The first is a stunning three minutes of Garbo memorizing this room as she explores with her fingers, her skin and her soul every object in the room at the inn where her romance with Antonio blossomed. The second is the closing shot, a zoom in on Garbo's face as she stands at the bow of a ship, staring at absolutely nothing and thinking of every future imaginable.

The rest of the cast, including a John Gilbert desperately trying but failing to salvage a career in talkies, simply drown in Garbo's wake, the congregation of men trying in vain to control Christina's life melding into a mess of misplaced machismo.

Without being lavish, Queen Christina is a grand production. The set designs convey a winter-hardened Sweden, a bustling and functional royal palace, and interiors that combine required royal eminence with Swedish pragmatism. Ironically, amidst all the dignified nobility the most famous set is that humble inn where Christina and Antonio spend the night, a roadside stop designed to change the course of life.

Queen Christina delights with the story of a rogue royal, eons ahead of her time and portrayed by an all-time legend.

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