[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
I saw a sneak preview of The Abdication on Friday, August 9; when the title, unaccompanied by any credits or similar words of explanation or orientation, hit the screen, a ripple of laughter moved through the audience as they took their reference from the day’s headlines. It wasn’t the last unintentional laugh Anthony Harvey’s colossally miscalculated chamber epic drew that evening. Admittedly a two-character play involving the self-deposed Queen Christina of Sweden and the Vatican prelate, Cardinal Azzolini, assigned to decide her worthiness to be embraced by Mother (or Father) Church didn’t sound like the most auspicious pretext for a film, and tricking up that claustrophobic core with pedantically “imaginative” cuts and dissolves to stylized memory-visions of incidents in the ex-queen’s past—itself a pretty stylized procession of events—has only undercut whatever personal and ideological majesty the confrontation might have had. Indeed, no one connected with The Abdication seems to have had a very clear grasp of the ideology involved and, worse still, of how they felt about that ideology.
At first The Abdication appears to be a women’s-lib exemplum from an unexpected quarter (the historical costume film), what with Liv Ullmann striding brazenly about the Vatican in pants and shirt accompanied by a male dwarf, putting self-important men to rout with robes flapping and eyelashes flicking, and saucily refusing to accept—or even take seriously—the celibate churchmen’s endeavors to pin a sexist rap on her as a notorious libertine. Although other cardinals bestir themselves in the corridors hatching dark political plots and cross-plots (beside them the stick figures of Preminger’s trashy The Cardinal look like rounded characters), the primary focus of Christina’s consciousness-raising becomes Azzolini (Peter Finch), and the prospect of a clandestine marriage of true minds looms in the fog of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filters. But about the time one settles down and agrees to accept the fortuitous availability of two such hip contemporary types in 16th-century Rome, the whole show lurches irretrievably into ludicrousness, as Christina recounts comedies of psychopathology from her past and Azzolini tries to suppress his own rising interest in her case by invoking the immutable laws of the Church.
Perhaps playwright Ruth Woolf, adapting her own work, is as much at fault as Harvey, but it’s his failures of judgment and perspective that are so readily observable up there on the screen. For instance, Christina recounts to Azzolini the time she became aware that her best girlfriend and best boyfriend were lovers. Herself a virgin, she pleaded with the girl to let her watch from behind a drapery as the young fellow visited her. After protesting that the young queen should find out what it’s like in the most direct fashion, the girlfriend acceded and Christina watched. As Harvey directs the memory scene, it’s sophomoric black comedy sub–Lion in Winter (which was his too, of course), with the stud yanking down the girl’s nightie in caveman fashion (but no further than a caveman mindful of a PG rating would yank it), the girl flashing a quick glance at Christina in the alcove before being tipped onto the edge of the bed, and the camera leaving them to probe through the shadows toward Christina’s teary eyes. A gargle of self-abandon on the soundtrack may be intended to invoke the women’s-lib theme: Christina refuses to surrender herself—her self—to any man; but the sneaky-peekery is the stuff of farce, and as Ullmann plays the scene we are led to believe that Christina is appalled less by the potential loss of self than by the mechanics of copulation: she seems to be thinking, “So that‘s what people do!” and any audience is to be forgiven if they volubly demonstrate their impatience with her ignorance on that point.
Cardinal Azzolini fares little better because the imperatives he lives by are not regarded as imperatives by many members of the film’s audiences, and Harvey is too cute to stand still and either permit Azzolini the dignity of his anachronistic creed or employ Christina more decisively as an assault on that creed. Both Liv Ullmann and Peter Finch do interesting work in various scenes, but they are left cruelly undefended by Harvey’s failure of focus. Harvey himself, when he isn’t trying to remake Lion in Winter, seems to be setting himself up as a new Fritz Lang, so conspicuous is his endeavor to convey his narrative by means of—and perhaps subordinate the characterizations to—architecture and camera angle. When Christina achieves her purpose at film’s end—reception by the Pope at the expense of sacrificing her budding relationship with Azzolini—her hollow victory is figured not in her walking up the Vatican stairs toward the Pope’s chambers, but rather in the camera’s describing that ascension until freezeframing halfway there. That could have been a nice and expressive device, but the hundred and one laborious compositions that precede it have, by then, too decisively demonstrated that the director has no real feeling for the technique at all—demonstrated, indeed, that it is just a technique to him and not the essential means of expressing a vision. The Abdication is the kind of total mistake that results when a filmmaker tries to substitute artiness for conviction. That part’s simple enough. The only mystery connected with the film is why a talented and intelligent actress like Ullmann keeps picking such violently inadequate English-language directors to work with (Milton Katselas, Charles Jarrott, Michael Anderson, Anthony Harvey…).
Direction: Anthony Harvey. Screenplay: Ruth Wolff, after her play. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Music: Nino Rota.
The Players: Liv Ullmann, Peter Finch, Paul Rogers, Cyril Cusack, Graham Crowden.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson