This review of the Netflix series The Empress season 1 contains no spoilers.
Anyone looking for a replacement for The crown, with an addictive twist of cutthroat politics and chess maneuvers, may have found their solution with The Empress. The German Netflix streaming series is a wonderful television season. The show is more than a period drama marketed as a lavish romance — it’s a character study that focuses on the beloved empress’ renowned empathy. The Empress creates tension through the power of political struggle, lore, and high stakes that create suspense, while the final scenes come full circle on the humanity of the main characters.
The Empress the story of season 1 is centered on Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie (play Devrim Linnau), the Princess of Bavaria born in the House of Wittelsbach – or “Sissi” for short. I mean, the titles with these people, right? Only sixteen at the time, standard for the time. (By the way, we’ll ignore the fact that the mothers of the happy couple are sisters). Sissi fell in love with Emperor Franz Joseph (played by Philippe Froissant) in 1854. After stealing it from his sister, Helene (Elisa Schlott, so good here she limits screen time), whom he was there to meet. Well, it was perfectly innocent. Franz and Elisabeth are tired of having no free will or simple power to choose in their lives. As young love tends to do, it gets intoxicating and the two jump in without thinking.
It’s a lavish romance, but Elisabeth is thrown into a game of chess with political rivals and maneuvers she’s not ready for. Never wanting to be locked up, the future Empress doesn’t follow the same rules as most royalty. She wants to walk among people and have intimidating gatherings. Even go hunting with the boys. And by God, walk barefoot on the ground without the palace guard picking it up because the ruler “chosen” by God cannot do it without the proper footwear. Either way, her seductive nature has caught the attention of Franz’s brother, Maximillian (Johannes Nussbaum), who wants the throne, and Elisabeth, for himself.
Then there’s the rest of the family, including her stepmom, Sophia (a terrific Melika Foroutan, book her Emmys tickets). The show’s main character is the puppeteer who pulls the strings of weak men pretending to be emperors as she guides the land with a steady hand. This conflicts with Franz and Elisabeth’s beliefs in wanting to stop endless wars and alliances. Also, the main goal of building the Austrian economy with a new railway is that people suffer and go hungry.
Here, Sophia wants to treat people like a game of Risk, and Franz wants to protect them. However, outside forces started the revolution “for the people” and tried to kill him. Without seeing it, the emperor tries to change things from within. Meanwhile, the palace has no idea of the uprising and an assassination plan has begun beyond the palace walls.
The Empress is a beautifully shot and visually stunning period piece directed by Katrin Gebbe (pelican blood) and Florian Cossen (Coconut Heroes). The show also has perfectly written scripts by Bernd Lange and Jana Nandzik. The six-episode series builds tension and anxiety through all the political backstabbing across multiple character conflicts. These all converge and even triangulate at the end of the series. When those times come, that’s when The Empress thrives and sparks fly. Whether it’s Elisabeth confronting Franz’s ex-lover and political ally, Louise (a terrific Svenja Jung), Sophia’s painfully honest sighting of Maximillian, or Franz’s clash with the son of a Russian Tsar, the beautifully plotted series pays off in extraordinary ways.
You are rewarded with well-drawn three-dimensional characters and the interactions are honest. Elisabeth is young and probably not suitable for Franz. Why? Because she is not cut out for the traditional role of empress. Or, as Sophia puts it, only there to give Franz an heir to the throne. Although his intentions are good, they are naïve. Even Sissi’s calculated mother-in-law tells her son it was a “beautiful dream,” but knows this empress doesn’t compliment her son in the traditional way.
The performances are good, with Foroutan giving the series the best performance. Her character is so compelling and multi-layered that sometimes it’s impossible to see where she’s headed next. My only complaint is that Franz and Elisabeth aren’t as interesting as the secondary characters. I found it refreshing that the show’s romance wasn’t overdone. The duo becomes more interesting once their differences in defining and envisioning their roles take shape.
Ultimately, not only does the series highlight modern themes, but The Empress do what only the best movies and TV series can do: transport you to another time and another place. With a sharp artistic eye for memorable imagery like Elisabeth walking through angry crowds with torches in hand or a confused reflection on a paddling pool as she races her horse through the palace grounds, this netflix the series is one of the best of the year.
What did you think of season 1 of The Empress? Comments below!
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The Empress Season 1 Review – A Magnificent Season of TV appeared first on Ready Steady Cut.