By Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

From the grand imperial palace to the wild woods, almost everything in the Austrian 2022 Netflix series ‘The Empress’ AKA ‘Die Kaiserin’ is visually stunning. Loosely based on the life of Duchess Elizabeth who was married to Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria, the series romantically fictionalizes their lives to present an entertaining slice of historical drama.

The plot focuses on Elizabeth, a problem-child, whose mother Princess Ludovika (half-sister of King Ludwig of Bavaria) threatens to pack her off to an asylum if she doesn’t marry and behave like a proper lady should. When a match between her sister and the emperor is proposed, the young Franz immediately falls for Elizabeth instead. Their unexpected romance ruffles feathers in both families, but blinded by pangs of first love, the naive Elizabeth fails to grasp the challenges that await her as the empress. For a young woman who writes poetry, dreams of freedom despite a lenient upbringing and takes off on her horse in the wild whenever she feels like, the protagonist is ill-prepared for the scrutiny, restraints and rules of being a monarch’s consort.

Directed by Katrin Gebbe and Florian Cossen, ‘The Empress’ is spread over a sumptuous six episodes, with a haunting musical score constantly building tension across the runtime. The cinematography is stunning and the show could’ve passed off for a fantasy series if it weren’t deeply steeped in the realities of European court life and the extreme excesses of the ruling class. Devrim Lingnau plays the titular lead, the young Elizabeth who is stifled by her mother’s expectations but nothing mentally prepares her for the rigid court lifestyle, where she is treated like a dispensable device if she doesn’t bear a son to her husband. Devrim is a far cry from the portraits of the real Duchess, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up with her powerful portrayal of the capricious Elizabeth. Co-actor Philip Froissant is charming as emperor Franz Joseph, who is too tied down by the duties of a king to give his wife the time, attention and empathy she seeks. Their on-screen chemistry is surprisingly sweet, making you want to root for them.

The story incorporates ample court politics, conspiracies, public dissent, ego clashes and betrayals to keep things interesting. Melika Foroutan is riveting as the emperor’s manipulative mother – Princess Sophie – who instantly dislikes Elizabeth and is the proverbial evil mother-in-law. Johannes Nussbaum plays Archduke Maximilian, who despite being a self-indulgent libertine, thinks he can wear the crown better than his older brother Franz. Almila Bagriacik has one of the most challenging roles, she plays Leontine, a revolutionary who disguises herself as a lady-in-waiting for the Empress. In close proximity to the royals, Leontine begins to grow conflicted about whether assassinating their rulers would really help bring about a change for the poor.

Driven by strong women characters, ‘The Empress’ highlights both how dangerously powerful or how miserably helpless women can be. The show ends at a high point, with things escalating between the lead couple and the political situation getting more complicated for the Emperor. While episode six is a befitting enough ending to the show, there better be a season two!

It’s a 9/10 from me.

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