The new German-language show on Netflix is as smartly written as it is beautiful to look at, writes Catherine McGregor.
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The Empress tells the true(ish) story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a 19th century member of the House of Habsburg whose Austro-Hungarian empire encompassed most of central Europe. In German culture Elisabeth, or Sisi as she was commonly known, is a renowned historical figure, but non-Teutonic viewers will most likely be going in cold. That’s no problem: apart from a few gnarly geopolitical aspects, the story is easy enough to follow.
The six episodes of season one follow the courtship of Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph and the early months of their marriage at the Imperial palace in Vienna. Elisabeth is headstrong, artistic, empathetic – a poor fit for palace life; her new husband is busy fending off attempts to be drawn into the Crimean War while dreaming of ways to modernise his sprawling empire.
Much as I love period dramas, I’ve found myself turned off by their increasing desperation to attract younger, more pop-culture aware viewers (yes Bridgerton, I’m looking at you, though your diverse casting can definitely stay). That’s the first point in The Empress’s favour. While it certainly isn’t slavishly devoted to historical accuracy – more on that in a moment – it retains most of the trappings of a classic costume romp. If The Empress was a Jane Austen adaptation, it’d be the swoony Keira Knightley-starring Pride and Prejudice, not Dakota Johnson’s controversial, fourth-wall-breaking Persuasion.
Pride and Prejudice, in fact, seems to have been something of an inspiration for The Empress, at least in episode one. There’s a pushy mother, a pretty but dull older sister, a rakish young man who can’t be trusted, and, at the heart of the story, Elisabeth, the family black sheep. She loves solitude, nature and poetry, and has no intention of marrying at all. Until, of course, she has a meet-cute with the Emperor in the garden.
If it sounds predictable, well, in many ways it is. But The Empress is also full of surprises. Chief among them is Elisabeth herself, played by the wonderful Devrim Lingnau with humour, intelligence and earthy sensuality. The surprises come also in the many fleeting moments of strangeness that keep the story a little off-kilter. In what other mainstream costume drama would you see a lady-in-waiting clean her queen’s teeth with her finger, or the heroine of the show hock an enormous loogie as an expression of unbridled joy?
Almost as importantly, The Empress looks incredible. Forget CGI dragons: this is the show that made me consider springing for a properly big TV. From the costumes to the locations – all real German palaces – to the breathtaking cinematography, it’s television to luxuriate in.
I know I said The Empress was a relatively trad sort of costume drama. But it also boasts a hairstyling choice so bonkers it makes me furious every time I think of it. Remember that blonde bob wig Julia Roberts sports in Pretty Woman? A main character in The Empress has that exact haircut… in the year 1854. Not even Bridgerton would dare.
A beautifully shot, smartly written dark fairytale, with enough sex and silliness to appeal to a wide Netflix audience.