As Excessive and Confusing as Versailles Itself

Mar 19, 2023

When it comes to a historical figure as well-known — or notorious, perhaps, depending on your point of view — as Marie Antoinette, the pressure is on for any new adaptations of her story to put a new spin on things. There’s also the demand to provide new incentives for audiences to check out a story they’ve heard already, or to lure them away from a favorite retelling to give a new one a try. Such is the burden placed on PBS’ upcoming period drama Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, despite what was likely the best of intentions from everyone involved, and a compelling turn by star Emilia Schüle as the doomed future Queen of France, the series winds up feeling much like Versailles itself: outwardly glamorous and luxurious, concealing unpalatable excess beneath.

The series follows Marie (Schüle), beginning in her final days as an Austrian Archduchess as she is taken to France to be married to the Dauphin Louis (Louis Cunningham) — soon to be Louis XVI. Versailles is an adjustment for the young princess, who is not used to the machinations of a court as toxic as Versailles, and who finds herself in constant opposition with King Louis XV’s (James Purefoy) mistress Madame Du Barry (Gaia Weiss), his daughters Adelaide (Crystal Shepherd-Cross) and Victoire (Caroline Piette), and Louis’ brother the Count of Provence (Jack Archer). The first six episodes of the series follow Marie as she finds her way in court, and learns how to play the Versailles game, gradually growing into her role as princess, even as her role as wife to Louis feels increasingly difficult to master.

The early days of Louis and Marie’s marriage are familiar ground to anyone who has studied the French monarchy — as I had to for longer than I’d care to remember — for those who grew up on Kathryn Lasky’s Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, or most notably those familiar with Sofia Coppola’s Kirsten Dunst-starring film of the same name. Under showrunner Deborah Davis, it’s clear the show is trying to go for something different, edgy yet restrained, glamorous yet gritty. In trying to be all things at once, the series opens itself up to a lot of comparisons with other period dramas, but this is not something that works in Marie Antoinette’s favor.

Image via PBS

RELATED: ‘Marie Antoinette’: PBS Period Drama Gets Spring Release Date

The late 2000s-early 2010s felt like the heyday of period dramas set between the 16th and 18th centuries — The Tudors, The Borgias, and Philippa Gregory adaptations all come to mind. Aesthetically, Marie Antoinette has a lot in common with these in breathtaking costumes and jewelry, as well as a meticulously designed set that conveys the luxury of the court of Versailles in every single frame. But where those shows were content to be a relatively straightforward take on history — with some sex thrown in, because that’s something they’re allowed to do on premium cable that sets them apart — modern takes on history have grown beyond that. Prime Video’s The Great is anachronistic, yes, but it has something to say about the time period. Vikings: Valhalla is very different in tone, but it approaches both characters and storylines with the kind of intentionality that is sorely lacking in Marie Antoinette.

To give a concrete example, it’s best to look at Marie and Louis’ relationship. Adaptations of the early days of their marriage all agree that things were rough at the outset. Putting aside the tension that comes from an arranged, political union with someone you don’t know, and the veritable culture shock that is Versailles, the two initially didn’t seem to have much in common. What initially struck me as interesting was that when the audience was first introduced to Louis, he was quiet, awkward, and more fixated on hunting than on his new wife. Though I now realize I was reading far too much into it, it initially appeared as though Louis was being portrayed as neurodivergent. The prospect was thrilling for me, especially given how quickly many dismiss neurodivergence as a modern concept, rather than one that has simply gone undocumented and dismissed for much of human history. How novel, then, to suggest one of history’s best-known kings might have been neurodivergent. Later episodes do away with this almost entirely. It’s as though they realized in a panic that they had to make Louis a compelling romantic lead, and so changed his characterization to make him more conventional. There was no intentionality behind his earlier behavior, given how most of it goes away with a flick of a switch.

In retrospect, perhaps, it’s best that the series didn’t go with this characterization, given the disturbing elements of Episode 5. As Marie’s frustration at her unconsummated marriage grows, and pressures from her mother and the French court continue to push her to produce an heir, she finally confronts her husband about the lack of affection he has for her. Louis’ solution? To push her down onto her bed and force himself on her. The moment doesn’t last long, but it comes so out of left field for the kind of sweet, awkward man Louis was shown to be thus far. It is also never addressed again.

The one shining, saving grace of this series is Emilia Schüle. Her performance captures Marie Antoinette at every period in her life, from the naive new arrival at Versailles to the princess trying her best and finally to the queen who is learning how to play the game. She conveys it all so well that her performance sells the audience on moments that would be unbelievable, or unrealistic, in another actor’s hands. Marie Antoinette genuinely tries to put a new spin on the life of the famous French Queen, but in trying to both do something different, and stick to what worked so well for stories that came before it, the series winds up speaking far too much and saying very little.

Rating: C

Marie Antoinette premieres on PBS on March 19.

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