Greetings again from the darkness. Royals are having a moment. Well, actually, the Royals have had a few hundred years of moments … but now, they are having their moment in the entertainment world. It seems almost everyone watched “Downton Abbey” and now “The Crown”, and last year we saw Kristen Stewart’s Oscar nominated performance as Lady Di in SPENCER. Of course, there have been countless other films focused on Kings and Queens and other royal types, and now writer-director Marie Krutzer (THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET, 2019) serves up a (mostly) fictional account of Empress Elisabeth of Austria from the 19th century.
Vicky Krieps (PHANTOM THREAD, 2017) delivers a wonderful performance as Empress Elisabeth, also known as Sissi. It’s late 1877 and we follow her through one year of life … the year she turns 40. Now that’s an age that generates consternation amongst many, but for an Empress obsessed with age and beauty, and one considered a fashion icon of the era, it’s nearly traumatizing for her. She struggles with her weight and though she’s not often seen in public, she constantly worries about the people’s perception of her physical appearance. This leads to the torturous tightening of her corset (referenced in the film’s title).
Filmmaker Krutzer presents Sissi as the epitome of a life of entitlement, and one who has little purpose or happiness. Her young daughter and older son are mere afterthoughts to her, and instead she pursues hobbies such as horseback riding and fencing. Her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) seems mostly absent of love (although history tells us otherwise), and his affairs feed her insecurities surrounding her age.
On screen captions walk us through the timeline and numerous locations so that we always know where the Empress is and how long she stays. There is a particular sequence that historians should appreciate, as the Empress meets Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield), the inventor of an early motion picture camera. He chooses the Empress as a subject for his camera, and we witness the results. The historical relevance is with Le Prince and not the action shots of the Empress, as those (and their meeting) are quite fictional.
An unusual mix of music includes a version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and an especially enjoyable version of “As Tears Go By” (written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), as well as terrific music from Camille Dalmais. In many ways, this is Marie Krutzer’s love letter to a long ago royal, however it’s clearly a fictional depiction since the manner of death is so dramatically changed in type and timing. Ms. Krieps allows us to feel the frustrations of time felt by the Empress, and we understand the body double approach (replete with matching anchor tattoos). Subtle humor is injected periodically, and maybe the best is the doctor explaining how “harmless” the new drug heroin is. There is plenty here for those attracted to “royal” stories.
Opens in theaters on December 23, 2022