Reviewer: Charity Bishop
European television is rarely dominated by Austrian projects but this miniseries is a rare exception, a gorgeous foreign film with particular detail to elaborate costumes and breathtaking countryside. But if you are looking for accurate history, you must turn elsewhere.
Prince Rudolf (Max von Thun) of Austria is not thought to be the next potential monarch following the death of his father. Considered by many to be too progressive in his views and entirely diverted by the pursuit of beautiful and sometimes married women such the Baroness, he is little respected at court and underestimated by all save his mother, Empress Sisi (Sandra Ceccarelli). His one assurance of the royal lineage is through marriage and the production of a son and heir, which will insure him political power. Rudolf is much more interested in learning more of his people and bringing about liberal reform, so at the encouragement of his friend, a painter (Omar Sharif), he walks among the common man and finds himself falling in love with the beautiful daughter of a local baker. But when their interest in one another goes array, Rudolf immediately agrees to marry a foreign princess, Stephanie (Daniela Golpashin). Though well-suited, as the years pass they prove somewhat incompatible with one another's personalities and his attention once more strays... this time to the Baroness' beautiful daughter, Mary (Vittoria Puccini).
Their affair and what comes of it play out against the turbulent political atmosphere in pre-WWI Austria, and underline the scheming of the Prime Minister (Christian Clavier). Visually, this miniseries is one of the loveliest I have seen, with many exquisitely detailed gowns and panoramic shots of period-authentic streets and drawing rooms. The setting is also unusual enough that it captures one's interest, but it somewhat suffers from an audience unfamiliar with the source material -- while at the same time benefitting from it. It suffers in the respect that it does a very poor job of distinguishing and introducing characters -- I made it all the way to the end and still did not know who one of the women was -- if she was a relative, a past lover, a friend. Names are used so infrequently that the audience has a hard time remembering them. But where ignorance is bliss is concerned, so many changes have been made to the actual historic events that it bears only a mild resemblance to the true story -- including the necessity of making Rudolf likable. The real prince was not -- he was known for his philandering and for keeping detailed notes of all the women he "conquered." Motivations here are very obscure and not well-defined, leaving us wondering just what drove him to his ultimate actions.
Many of the cast members are quite good, but others are stiff and wooden -- I do not know if it is that they lack talent or if it is that they are speaking in a foreign language. Most of them are Austrian and the miniseries was filmed (or perhaps, simultaneously re-filmed) in English. The finest actor in that regard is Christian Clavier, who distinguished himself some years ago by playing Napoleon; it was a joy to see him on screen again. I loved the intros to each episode but do question the motives in attempting to "sex up" the series with completely unneeded nudity. Shortly into the production, we see the Baroness and Rudolf in bed together -- full side nudity and breast nudity is seen on her, and the scene lasts for three or four minutes; in the second episode, Rudolf and Mary have a very passionate (and poetically filmed, ironically) love scene that includes breast nudity on her; later, we see her standing naked in her room admiring a present he has given her. Pointless, gratuitous, and absurd considering everything else is so demure -- his wedding night with his new bride ends before anything happens, and he's never seen engaging in behavior inside the brothels, although one of his cousins boasts on two occasions that he has mastered two women upstairs at once. Rudolf keeps a mistress on the side and Stephanie accuses him of having contracted VD from her -- and spreading it to his wife. There are three uses of GD and a couple mild profanities.
The characters are quite well written in the sense that the audience rather likes Rudolf, but at the same time has trouble reconciling his immorality with their fondness for Mary. Romanticism wants us to desire for them to be together forever and in love, yet in the back of our minds is the nagging reminder that not only did he once have an affair with her mother, he also has syphilis and will give it to her. It's hard to like him after that. Overall, I thought the series was engaging and memorable in spite of its faults. A bit more polishing on the script for those of us unfamiliar with Victorian Austrian history and the absence of nudity would have made this a production worth owning, but for now it is somewhat tainted by its own inadequacies.