Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Abdication (1974)

          As a piece of film art, The Abdication has moments of tremendous beauty. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s imagery is simultaneously delicate and spectacular, because while he captures the story’s 17th-century settings with ornately lit panoramas that suggest classic paintings, he also conveys a sense of intimacy by accentuating the way people can be dwarfed by their surroundings. Similarly, composer Nino Rota’s stately music pulses with compassion, majesty, and warmth. And then there’s the story itself, which dramatizes a unique chapter from history—the period when Sweden’s tormented Queen Christina gave up her throne, and left her Protestant country, in order to become a Catholic. Written with great intelligence and sensitivity by Ruth Wolff, adapting her own play of the same name, The Abdication is ambitious, serious, and worthy. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly entertaining, and neither is it especially satisfying.
          Part of the problem is director Anthony Harvey’s leaden pacing, and part of the problem is that both leading players give insular performances. Playing Christina, the great Swedish actress Liv Ullmann captures moods ranging from caprice to combativeness, but, like her character, Ullmann holds too many cards close to her vest The true heart of the movie’s vision of Christina becomes visible only in glimpses, a problem exacerbated by the story’s intricate structure. Wolff organizes the narrative like a courtroom drama, so Cardinal Azzolino (Peter Finch) spends the whole movie interrogating Christina, under orders from the Vatican to determine the validity of her conversion.
          Accordingly, most of the key moments in Christina’s life are shown in fragmented flashbacks, culminating with a sequence during which Christina addresses widespread rumors that she was romantically involved with another woman. Concurrently, Wolff explores historical innuendo by implying that Azzolino and Christina became lovers, spiritually if not necessarily physically. The material is so interesting that it should work, and Finch is at least Ullmann’s equal. Yet it all feels chaste and flat and polite—so much so that The Abdication becomes boring after a while. Even the scenes of Vatican officials debating Christina’s political significance—which should be incendiary—feel overly mannered. Students of religious and/or royal history will undoubtedly find more to enjoy here than general viewers, and it’s inarguable that The Abdication is a sophisticated piece of work. Nonetheless, a sterile approach to storytelling prevents The Abdication from realizing its own tremendous potential.

The Abdication: FUNKY

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