Forget “will they or won’t they?”
In the PBS import Marie Antoinette, a tongue-in-rouged-cheek take on a period biography, the question is when will the diffident young Dauphin, later King Louis XVI, take his teenage Austrian bride, Marie Antoinette, to bed? Their relationship is shown to be shrug at first sight, but the gossipy 18th-century French court hangs on these political pawns’ every move. After all, as Marie’s mother the Empress Maria Theresa (Marthe Keller) impresses upon her before sending her away, “Your job is to deliver the heir.” Yeah, but first things first.
For much of the stylized first season, written by The Favourite’s Deborah Davis and ending well before the fateful Reign of Terror, Louis (gawky Louis Cunningham) flees at the very sight of Marie (a splendidly saucy Emilia Schüle) in a sexual panic. She’s frustrated by his rejection, but he’s just sad and pitiful, to the delight of those elaborately bewigged vultures and ghouls who mock and taunt these shellshocked kids.
Marie’s reception is chilly from the moment she crosses into France and meets the monstrous mistress of household, Madame de Noailles (Laura Benson), dubbed “Madame Etiquette” for her strict and humorless adherence to protocol. Which apparently means taking away poor Marie’s dog like a European version of The Wizard of Oz‘s Miss Almira Gulch. “A French princess does not display her feelings — and never cries in public,” scolds the Madame. Point taken.
Subtlety is not a virtue in a series that adopts a powerfully feminist sensibility amid jarringly modern vernacular. (I doubt “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” was part of anyone’s vocabulary back then.) Purists will scoff, though others might enjoy the sight of folded paper doves flying through an opulent Versailles, containing vile rumors like an early form of Twitter. With spies at every keyhole, do these not-quite-lovebirds stand a chance?
The early chapters are enlivened by James Purefoy’s droll take on Louis’ lusty father, Louis “Papa Roi” XV, and Marie’s jousting with the king’s possessive and jealous mistress, the fabled Madame Du Barry (Gaia Weiss). But once they’re out of the picture, and the bratty new Queen turns her Petit Trianon chateau into a party palace, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for these spoiled royals and their reprehensible foes.
Is it wrong to be counting the days until the French Revolution?
Marie Antoinette, Series Premiere, Sunday, March 19, 10/9c, PBS