Queen Christina (1933)


Eloquent! Just plain too eloquent...

Eloquent! Just plain too eloquent...

Genre: Period Romance Drama

Starring: Greta Garbo (NinotchkaGrand Hotel), John Gilbert (The Big ParadeFlesh and the Devil)

Directed By: Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)The Mark of Zorro (1940))

Overview: In 1634, the beloved crowned queen of Sweden finds the duty of her reign difficult when she falls in love.

Last night I felt like getting a dusty homework 1001 film off my plate, and what better than being alone –  thus not subjecting another with its tedium – with a movie from my least favourite era, the early talkies. Just as expected, typical of the 30s, Queen Christina is overdone epic grandeur, but MGM seems to have stepped over the most awkward technical issues facing the dirty thirties and helped to herald in the Golden Age of cinema with Queen Christina.

My Overview above is a poor description of what Queen Christina – both the film and the title character - is about. Though love plays an integral part in this Romantic Period Costume Drama, the romance only begins after we understanding of how deeply Queen Christina (Greta Garbo) cares for her homeland, easily half-way through the film. The story is quite simple: inaugurated as queen at the age of six, she spends her life for her beloved Sweden, dealing with war-hungry lords and their politicking. Years later, on a trip away from her castle, dressed as a man, she encounters a convoy of Spaniards and meets Spain’s envoy, Antonio (John Gilbert). As they spend time together she falls for him but must return to her kingdom’s court – to receive the Spanish envoy and his king’s missive. I won’t spoil the rest for you, because this is when the film gets interesting far beyond my previous expectation.

And then it sneaks up on you: Holy Cinematography!
And then it sneaks up on you: Holy Cinematography!

Queen Christina is by no means flawless. Just as it was with the other films of the early 30s, such as Captain Blood, it's a lot of pomp, a lot of circumstance and a lot of stiffly posed individuals acting Shakespeare-theatrical. Greta Garbo as the eponymous queen waves her arms drama-defiant in most scenes of the first act, overstating that she’s strong with power! her own power! that she wields powerfully! Speeches are grand monologues decadently-written into over-the-top stagey affairs as costumed as our characters. Yet, there’s a spark of potential early on when we hear the newly crowned six-year-old queen vowing to win the war. Still, it’s obvious which scenes the scriptwriters chose to go into over-polish mode for, and for nearly half the film I shook my head at the constricted acting and spouting of overzealous dialogue.

But Queen Christina wore me down. It changed when she became soft and vulnerable and human. Once the second act began, it became quite compelling and entertaining. In fact, Queen Christina has one of the most believable love-at-first-sight scenes I've witnessed in cinema, and, yes, that is saying a lot. The character study is surprising in itself for 1933, a rare tale of such a strong woman, with such role-reversal scenes as lying there eating grapes dangling over her mouth like Roman Emperor - very empowering. Queen Christina is really rather romantic, even touching the heart of a cold bastard like myself. Instead of the old nut plots of impossible love on opposite ends of war or having a father that won’t accept it, the problems she has are intelligent, jealous suitors, political machinations and the burden of her destiny as a monarch. Add the era, where perhaps ‘the formula’ hadn’t yet been etched in stone and the story plays out with an uncommon freshness and originality that deserves a proper nod.

That aforementioned 'love-at-first-sight' scene 

That aforementioned 'love-at-first-sight' scene

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 6 Plot: 9 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 72% (Much Better than I Was Thin-King)

It's obvious that once the scriptwriters got their big impressive searching-for-an-Oscar speeches out of the way, the story could take over and impress us on its own merit. It’s too bad the first half felt like it was written and directed by someone completely different. But alas, Queen Christina comes from a very dated era and I can't see it appealing to many people nowadays, even if it is a rare tale of a strong woman in charge.

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We really do share a brain sometimes. Having read your write-up, I went back and looked at mine, and what do I see? The same complaint of overdoing it at times, and the same joy at finding an actual romance under all of it.

 You aren't like an estranged cousin or something, are you? 

Heeell yeah!

I found an entire box set of Garbo movies so I get to see a few of her movies. If you compare Queen Christina with another of her famous movies Camille then it is so clear how brilliantly casted she is as Queen Christina. Aloof and royal and probably the only real Swede on the set. Picture the same actress as silly courtesan in Camille... no, it really doesn't work. Not believable at all. I enjoyed Queen Christina simply for the conviction that Garbo really was the queen.

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