Actors have trouble playing kings and queens realistically.
Either the king is noble and selfless like Henry V, or he’s scary and power-mad like Henry VIII.
And the further the monarch was in the past, the less realistic the portrayal is likely to be. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is the wisest sage, Emperor Commodus is the most depraved monster.
Greta Garbo was not constrained by this dichotomy. She played Sweden’s Queen Christina as a regular young woman; a woman with emotions we can fully relate to.
“Queen Christina” is not a great film. But Garbo’s performance is a timeless delight.
It would have so logical for Swedish actress Greta Garbo to overdramatize the situation, because this was arguably the most exciting time in her country’s history.
In addition to establishing colonies in North America, warrior king Gustavus Adolphus had entered the 30 Years War on the side of the Protestants.
I’m not glorifying this horribly destructive war. But I can understand why Swedes were proud of their upstart army for wreaking havoc on the Hapsburgs, and kicking butt from Pomerania to Prague.
When the king died in battle, his five-year-old daughter Christina became the accidental queen. In the movie, adult Queen Christina ends Sweden’s participation in the war. That doesn’t add up historically, but it makes for a good scene.
In “Queen Christina,” the young monarch wants to make love not war. And primarily to ladies. Director Rouben Mamoulian is frank about Christina’s bisexuality, and he includes a surprisingly sexy kiss between the queen and her girlfriend.
Garbo is completely relatable and loveable as the tomboy queen. She dresses in men’s clothes and fully embraces her character’s androgyny.
And that’s good because the crux of the plot is the real-life story of when Queen Christina went undercover as a man to enjoy some regular experiences.
This is where the film stops being great – and moves further away from real history. While undercover as a non-royal, Christina falls in love with a passionate Spanish nobleman.
In the movie, Christina’s conflict is that her people want her to marry her war hero cousin rather than an outsider. This contrived plot isn’t especially interesting.
The bummer is: the real drama of Queen Christina’s 20s was way more intense. As a young adult, the Swedish monarch was introduced to Roman Catholicism. Behind closed doors, she became a sincere Catholic, in a country that had just spent a lot of money and men killing Catholics on the continent.
What a shocking predicament! It sure would have been exciting to see Greta Garbo wrestle with that dangerous dilemma. I suppose 1930s Americans weren’t much more ready for a rebel Catholic hero than 1650s Swedes.
“Queen Christina” features an extraordinary performance by an elite actress; this might be the most relatable and realistic portrayal of a monarch that I’ve ever seen on film. The movie itself, however, is nothing special.\