It’s hard to imagine many historical figures more debated, mocked and at times deeply reviled than Marie Antoinette.
But the BBC’s latest blockbuster period drama doesn’t start with the cake‑munching, recklessly‑spending, politically‑interfering monarch with which we’re mostly familiar. It starts with a 14 year old royal who is terrified as she is sold off to be married.
This is to secure a political alliance between her native Austria and its new French allies. Desperate not to be separated from her mother, Antoinette begs to stay in Austria for just one more year.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Antoinette at this point. She is essentially trafficked across the Austrian border as soon as she is deemed ready to produce an heir.
But the drama goes rapidly downhill. I’ve only watched three episodes of the eight-strong series, now available on iPlayer.
It seems to think it’s more than your classic sensationalist bodice-ripper, maybe because of all the hushed conversations about grander political endeavours. But there was only so much heaving bosom and longing looks in candlelight I could really bear before I wanted something a bit more substantial.
Once married off to an uninterested Louis XVI, Antoinette’s place in the royal court is undermined by the fact their union remains unconsummated. It’s perhaps most interesting when it weaves the personal battles of the insufferable royals with the wider machinations of political alliances.
For example, the fresh alliance between Austria and France is woven into her personal dislike of the King’s mistress. Truly a bird in a gilded cage, it’s hard not to feel just sorry for Antoinette as she tries to navigate the vipers’ nest of Versailles.
But if the writers of this series wanted us to re-examine the legacy of Marie Antoinette, they should have produced something a little more compelling.
Marie Antoinette is on Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2. All episodes available now on BBC iPlayerOriginal post