When Queen Christina opened, at the end of 1933, Greta Garbo had not appeared in a film for eighteen months, and rumors were circulating that she was ready to give up the screen—something which was to happen later after her unsuccessful Two-Faced Woman (1941). Made as an artistic rewrite of history, Queen Christina has been called Garbo's most memorable film. Garbo's favorite cinematographer, William Daniels; art director, Alexander Toluboff; music director, Herbert Stothart; and costume designer, Adrian, all contributed to the overall excellence of the film. Garbo also insisted on John Gilbert, with whom she was having a passionate affair, as her leading man instead of Laurence Olivier, in the hopes that the role of Antonio would restore Gilbert's prestige. Although his role is definitely secondary, Gilbert makes a vivid impression; in spite of the legend that the advent of sound to motion pictures ruined the famous silent screen star's career because of his voice, his diction here is certainly acceptable. In any case, following Queen Christina, Gilbert made only one other film, The Captain Hates the Sea (1934), before his death in 1936.
In Queen Christina, director Rouben Mamoulian uses loving close-ups of Garbo, together with his customary long shots, to create the lush image of a queen who renounces her throne for love. The writers of the story and screenplay forsook historical accuracy m favor of a more entertaining mixture of love, sacrifice, and duty. The actual Queen Christina of Sweden (16261689) had a love of the arts and a disdain for most people which is not apparent in the screenplay; and her abdication was not over a love affair but because of a desire to pursue her artistic interests and to convert to Catholicism. (In a later version of the story of the queen, Christina, played by Liv Ullmann, falls in love with the cardinal, played by Peter Finch, who must test her sincerity on behalf of the Church; she is also at odds with her chancellor, Oxenstierna. By contrast, Garbo's Christina tells her chancellor—played in both movies by Lewis Stone—that he is the one person she trusts above all others.)
The film opens with a foreword that tells of the death of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden on the battlefield in 1632 during the Thirty Years' War. His Lord, Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, announces to the court that after fourteen years of war, a new ruler will reign: Gustavus' six-year-old daughter Christina (Cora Sue Collins), who has been reared as a boy. Mounting the throne by herself, she promises "to be a good and just king." Years later, Christina enjoys dressing as a man and riding at breakneck speed with her faithful servant Aage (C. Aubrey Smith). She declines Oxenstierna's advice that she wed her heroic cousin, Prince Charles Gustavus (Reginald Owen), and also puts off amorous Count Magnus (Ian Keith), her Lord Treasurer and partner in a secret affair which no longer stirs her.
Christina is next seen in bed, reading early in the morning to satisfy her constant thirst for knowledge. She likes Moliere and dislikes Magnus, she tells Aage. Dealing with affairs of state, she speaks to Ambassador Chanoux (George Renavent), who wants her to sign a treaty with France. She tells Oxenstierna that she sees nothing eye to eye with Charles and is tired of duty; however, she says she will not die an old maid, but a bachelor. Magnus feels Charles would be an ideal husband, since he spends his time reviewing the troops, which prompts Christina to wonder if she ever really cared for Magnus. Later, on the stairs, Christina eavesdrops on Ebba and her sweetheart count Jacob (Edward Norris), who is insisting that they wed. Ebba's remark that Christina is too stubborn to give her consent angers the queen. After bowing to peasants who shout for her to wed Charles, Christina angrily decides to get away from everything.
As Christina, dressed as a man, and Aage ride through, the snow, they see a coach fall into a rut. Christina's laughter annoys the coach's passenger, Don Antonio de la Prada, a Spanish ambassador on his way to see her on behalf of his King. Christina has Aage help the coachman and then tells Antonio the way to an inn. Not recognizing her, Antonio has his servant Pedro (Akim Tamiroff) give her a coin with her own likeness engraved upon it.
When Christina arrives at the inn and takes the last available room, the innkeeper (Ferdinand Munier), thinking she is a man, offers her a companion for the night; Antonio recognizes her from the road and also believes she is a man. (In these sections of the film in which Christina successfully carries out the male masquerade, Garbo takes a delightful tongue-in-cheek approach, and when the scene calls for a hearty laugh from the supposedly stoic star, Garbo rises to the occasion.) Although she has never been to Spain, Christina tells the Spanish ambassador that his homeland is close to her heart. When Antonio brings up the topic of love, Christina defines love as something simple and elemental. She then stops a fight between two drunks who argue that the queen has had either six or nine lovers in the past year. The correct number, she announces, is twelve. The innkeeper then asks the two gentlemen to share the room, and she agrees after Antonio is insulted by her offering it to him completely. Elsa, a saucy maid (Barbara Barondess), tries to entice Christina, who defers. When Christina removes her coat, it is obvious to Antonio that she is a woman. Because of the snows, they spend several days together, and Christina promises to see Antonio in Stockholm.
Donning a gown for the first time in the film, Christina forgives Ebba and again scorns Magnus, who notices how beautiful she looks. In court, Antonio is shocked into silence at the first sight of the queen. Magnus gives him a "friendly warning" before Christina grants Antonio a private audience. While he appreciates a royal jest, Antonio feels unlucky being her thirteenth lover. She laughs at the portrait of King Philip of Spain, who seeks a marriage, and tells Antonio she loves him.
Magnus uses agents to stir resentment against Antonio; he also gets Charles's attention. When a mob storms the castle, Christina confronts them alone and tells them that she is doing her job by right of inheritance and that they should do the same. Later, Magnus takes Antonio away for the latter's "safety" and confronts Christina with his treachery. She signs an order for Antonio to sail home, but secretly intends to go with him. Late at night, Christina tells Oxenstierna that she is tired of being a symbol; he counters with, "Greatness demands all." After nominating Charles to succeed her, Christina abdicates and rides to the ship, where she finds Antonio mortally wounded in a duel with Magnus. Promising never to leave him, Christina watches Antonio die; then she prepares to sail for his homeland and his house on a cliff.