Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Abdication: A Review (Review #1805)



The story of Queen Christina did not end with Greta Garbo. After the Swedish Sphinx went into exile after giving up the crown, the real former monarch went to Rome to be received as a loyal daughter of the Church. The Abdication is not a sequel to Queen Christina. It is, however, a dull film that treats its characters as another element of its lush production.

Queen Christina of Sweden (Liv Ullmann) has renounced the throne and finds freedom and liberation from its heavy responsibilities. Now, she arrives at the Vatican sooner than expected. She has converted to Catholicism and wishes to receive the sacrament of Communion from His Holiness the Pope and no one else. That she is a former Queen also entitles her to this privilege. The College of Cardinals, however, are alarmed at the various tales of debauchery and decadence that come with Christina. To investigate the allegations and verify the truth of Christina's conversion, Cardinal Azzolino (Peter Finch) is sent to question her.

Christina is disgusted at the idea of being questioned at all. Nevertheless, she submits to Azzolino's inquisition. Sometimes haughty, sometimes sincere, Christina reflects on her past and present. Azzolino is soon drawn to the beautiful and contradictory ex-monarch. Could they be falling in love? The matters of the heart and the matters of faith collide, but will both make more sacrifices for the other? Will they remain true to their individual vows?

The Abdication should work. Its director, Anthony Harvey, is an old hand at royalty in crisis, having successfully filmed The Lion in Winter six years earlier. The screenplay is by Ruth Woolf, who wrote the play on which The Abdication is based on. It has two fine actors in Ullmann and Finch. It has a beautiful Nino Rota score and lush production design and cinematography. Therefore, why is it such a slog to sit through and ultimately so boring?

I think it comes down to how the material is treated. All the elements that should have made The Abdication a good film were poorly handled. Harvey directed all his cast to be so serious and grand versus real. Christina and Azzolino came across as dull and lifeless. There were a few moments when Ullmann and Finch individually were strong. However, when they were together, each looked as if they were in an informal battle to see who could be grander in their performance. 

There was a brief moment when we could have even had some fun with things. When she arrived in Rome, Azzolini confronts Christina with the accusations of her allegedly libertine journey to the Holy See. He presents her with a book: The Pleasure and Depravities of Christina, Queen of Sweden. This appearance of the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time maybe wouldn't be played for laughs, but it would be fascinating to learn what those "pleasures and depravities" were, especially given how almost stern and serious Christina appears to be in The Abdication

The Abdication seemed to care more about the visuals than about the people. All that lush cinematography, from the opening scene of Christina renouncing the throne to her flashbacks in the royal gardens end up drowning the film in some almost mystical vision. The music, equally grand and to be fair quite beautiful, also makes things almost too unreal. The film should be about the inner conflict, spiritual and carnal, between Christina and Azzolini. It ends up being about how majestic and opulent things can look.  

There is such a seriousness running through The Abdication that no one appears human. Moreover, there were some odd choices. The initial inquiry from Azzolini to Christina is abruptly cut by two cardinals discussing how Azzolini may use this inquiry to his advantage only to return to the Azzolini/Christina interview. It is a strange cut that only serves to force the foreshadowing of their alleged romance. 

There are to be fair, some good lines in the film. When Azzolini remarks that her successor and cousin Charles X Gustav is reported to have no character, she quips, "It seems to be an advantage for a King, to have no character". Later, when questioned over her struggle to sleep and habit of moving from bed to bed in her temporary Papal palace, she remarks, "Sleep is the refuge of idiots". Azzolini replies, "We can assure you of beds, but not of sleep". The sequence where a Vatican friar, Dominic (Louis Fiander) keeps showing bedchambers to Christina's disapproving dwarf (Michael Dunn) is amusing.

In retrospect, my note of "Poor Dominic: unable to satisfy a dwarf" reads funnier than intended. It is also about the only amusing part in a film that takes itself far too seriously.  

This, I imagine, plays better on a stage than on a film. That may be the big issue with The Abdication: that the translation from stage to screen failed. More than once did I write how GRAND everything was in the film. Too lost in its own sense of grandness, The Abdication is a poor follow-up to Her Majesty's story. 



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