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Corsage – Film Review

Corsage – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire

Director – Marie Kreutzer
Writer – Marie Kreutzer
Stars – Colin Morgan, Vicky Krieps, Finnegan Oldfield

The Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-98) was the longest-serving empress in the history of Europe’s most powerful and enduring dynasty.  Born into the ruling family of the then Kingdom of Bavaria, she enjoyed a privileged and indulged upbringing, with no dynastic or strategic marriage anticipated.   However, a love match at the age of sixteen with her cousin, the young Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) thrust her not only into the spotlight of the world’s media (as it then was) but into the rigorously formal etiquette of an increasingly sclerotic court.

Wild and free-spirited in a court dominated by ritual and an empire threatened by rampant nationalistic forces at its edges – her marriage was far from a happy one.  The unhappiness of this arrangement is at the core of this twist on historical biopic – much is real, much is accurate and yet much is equally outlandish and anachronistic.  It is like an agitated version of Downtown Abbey without the historical accuracy, and that is saying something.

The film focuses on one year in the life of the empress, 1878 and what appears to be her complete psychological meltdown.  For an Irish viewer we might have preferred a focus on the following year, 1879, when she spent time hunting in Co Meath and staying near Kilcock at Summerhill House, since demolished, attended mass at Maynooth and, to the horror of the British authorities, was acclaimed and cheered by the peasantry wherever she went. Instead, there is an intense focus on the hothouse atmosphere of the Court and we get some insight into her obsessive attention to her renowned beauty – no photographs allowed once she had reached 30.  She maintained an obsessive fitness and beauty regime which lasted hours, ‘worked out’ and rode obsessively and ate virtually nothing – all to maintain a 16-inch waistline!  This is all captured with great conviction and authority.  And the many – obviously intentional anachronisms – just get overlooked – the peeling paint of interiors, the falling down plasterwork – some not very subtle comments perhaps on the state of the Austrian monarchy.  And then the other anachronisms, the modern music, the plate-glass doorways and electric light fittings and modern farm machinery.   It is essentially like a director let loose on a classic opera and deciding to give it a bit of edge.   Of course, the trip to Northamptonshire is the most outlandish – a dilapidated Mitel European Manor House somehow meant to pass as the home of the Spencers – all set in Alpine scenery where her running around evokes, if anything, Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  How do you solve a problem like Elizabeth hangs over this film – a woman making her own rules and unwilling to conform to conventions and expectations, be it those of a Mother Abbes or the Hapsburg Court.

The reference to the Spencer country seat of course evokes Diana Princess of Wales and indeed there are numerous parallels… the cult-like devotion of the masses, the beauty, the eating habits, the unhappy marriage, the free spirit stifled by the court, the lack of purpose, the visiting of the sick – akin to some divine apparition.  Is it a cry from the heart for all women trapped in a loveless marriage or women trapped in a pre-defined restrictive system?   It is strangely compelling and held together by a wondrous central performance.

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