By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist
After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose life and times coincided with some of the most important political and cultural events in the last seven decades, even the rabid republicans watched the pomp and circumstance of her funeral procession with doe eyes as it unfolded live on television.
The highly anticipated fifth Season of The Crown (2016-) would no doubt assume a new significance in the new Carolean age. About a month to go before the hit Netflix series of The Crown returns in November, the advent of the German period drama, The Empress (2022), would no doubt satisfy The Crown fandom.
The Empress is a towering achievement with unparalleled storytelling, beguiling visuals and soaring epic music that provides a modern-day audience with a glimpse into the crumbling, yet defiant Habsburg Empire during the 19th century. Beyond the political strategies and mechanisms, there lies a heart-warming tale of love and devotion between Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, Princess of Bavaria.
The parallels between The Crown (2016-) and Becoming Elizabeth (2022) are palpable as the epic orchestral score captures the grandeur of the settings. As in The Crown, there is the reluctant monarch-in-waiting, but it is a duty one must assume despite personal reservations.
The characters of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were played with confidence by Philip Froissant and Devrim Lingnau. Froissant and Lingnau have both been a revelation with the delicacy and nuance with which they layer the roles of the famed royal couple.
For example, in the opening episode, young Franz Joseph is compelled to preside over a public execution for treason and is told sternly to “conduct yourself as the emperor”, but looking into the eyes of the accused, Franz Joseph’s human empathy gets the better of him which would severely undermine his stature as an emperor.
With a clenched fist and a grim determination, the emperor-in-waiting witnesses the sadistic spectacle as he must. This scene alone stands as a testament to Froissant’s skill as a nuanced performer.
Devrim Lingnau triumphs as Elisabeth, playing the role of the empress with grace, strength and the occasional naïvety of her youth. Marrying the emperor is by no means an endless round of fanfare as she is exposed to those who seek her ruination. Into this pervasive atmosphere of the duplicitous court, politics enters Elisabeth. No one is to be trusted.
The proverbial den of vipers is aptly applied here as she must navigate the pitfalls dug by the emperor’s mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria (Melika Foroutan), and his brother Archduke Maximilian (Johannes Nussbaum).
The unfolding of the drama by Katharina Eyssen was both engaging and thought-provoking. She has crafted a series both as a coming-of-age romance of privileged young woman, and a tale of political scheming and the growing public discontent which heralds an all-sweeping Revolution.
The meticulous research and consultations of the creators are worth noting as they do not shy away from portraying the entrenched misogyny of this period of history as depicted in the case of performing mandatory chastity inspections by solemn-looking physicians.
Additionally, the historically accurate portrayal of social class is noteworthy. The costume designer, Gabrielle Reumer, pays close attention to the sumptuous dress code of the courts and the drab attire of the poor. It is indeed a tale of two cities.
The kaleidoscope of colour and sparkle could easily lull the audience members to forget the privilege and vast wealth the monarchy sits on while leading the rest of the country to beggary and bankruptcy. It is naïve to assume that the Emperor and the Empress are benign overlords.
Having said that, The Empress (2022) has been a soaring triumph which is already gathering a growing fandom. The netizens are slating the series not due to any artistic deficiency but due to its brevity compared to other period dramas.
Despite the veneer of glamour surrounding a decaying empire, the story of a remarkable woman against all odds stands as a shining beacon. The whirlwind binge-worthy period drama captures the delicate balance between history and artistic licence in order to provide a glimpse into 19th-century Austria.
Featured Image: Netflix
Does The Empress live up to the 'royal hype' created by The Crown?