Sunday’s “Marie Antoinette” on PBS brings a 21st century focus to one of history’s most enduring enigmas.
Re-imagined by writer Deborah Davis (her Oscar-winning “The Favorite” mocked eccentric English royalty), this is emphatically a sympathetic portrait.
Emilia Schüle, a Russian-born German actress, began with only vague notions about the Austrian princess.
“Like everyone else, what I knew about her was mostly based on Sofia Coppola’s film. I knew she was beheaded. I knew she said, ‘Let them eat cake’ and she was addicted to dresses and parties and gambling.
“And that perception totally changed,” Schüle, 31, said in a Zoom interview from Europe.
“Because the first episode that Deborah Davis wrote is about Marie’s journey from Austria to Paris where she’s about to be married off — and it is written like a nightmare! You really feel for that poor 14-year-old that’s been sent away from her mother, from her home country, to marry some guy she’s never met.
“And this narrative continues. We don’t show the French court as a place where she felt more calm. It really gets at the complexity of all the difficulties she was facing during her time at this court.”
Marie’s marriage was meant to bond the two nations but the French were hostile to Austria. Marie endured the brunt of that venomous contempt.
“For a long time she was secretly called ‘the Austrian Bitch’ because hostilities between the countries doesn’t fade away just because you marry. Also, life at Versailles was like traveling back in time with very weird rules. The way they were dressing and putting on makeup was just very bizarre. And she was fighting all these restrictions that life at court was trying to impose on her.”
That’s the real Versailles, France’s historic Royal Palace just outside Paris, that we see. “We had eight or nine filming days,” Schüle explained. “It’s closed to the public on Mondays so we would film always on Mondays.”
This first season covers the first decade of Marie’s life; it was for Schüle a total immersion.
“I did identify with her and felt sorry for her because her life was not easy. Having a husband that was not touching you. Looking for a role in life and be more than just a baby-producing human being.
“I’ve never played a character for such a long time and after four months I started to dream as Marie. I was mixing up my life and my film and it was really weird.
“That’s when I knew, it’s time to get home. Luckily, I just had one month to go.”
“Marie Antoinette” airs on PBS Sunday at 10 p.m.
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