Mayerling: lavish visuals cannot hide workman-like script and direction, and wooden acting

Terence Young, “Mayerling” (1968)

Better known perhaps for directing three James Bond films in the 1960s, the British director Terence Young turned his hand to making a historical romantic tragedy, albeit one padded out with political intrigue and spies galore. “Mayerling” has big production values and lavish historical styling but all the costumes, palaces, pomp, rousing romantic orchestral music and those spies cannot hide a slow, workman-like script and subdued wooden acting. The film’s plot is very loosely based on actual events: in the late 1880s, the Crown Prince Rudolf (Omar Sharif) of the Hapsburg empire, sprawling across much of central Europe, is unhappily married to Princess St├ęphanie and pursues an aimless life of pleasure with an endless parade of women, wine and morphine addiction. He clashes with his father, the Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), over politics: the old feller prefers to rule his multicultural subjects in typical iron-fisted authoritarian patriarchal style, in which hierarchy, order, stability and Catholic worship are the order of the day, while junior imagines a curious mix of being an enlightened social progressive with liberal politics and at the same time ruling as a divinely ordained king. (Probably not so very different from what Prince Charles of the United Kingdom imagines he’ll be one day.) To that end, Rudolf is entangled with a group of revolutionaries who want to separate Hungary from the rest of the Austrian Hapsburg realms and install him as King; the crown prince and his buddies differ in the details as to how a future Hungarian king and parliament will get on and whether they’ll be on equal political terms.

While the co-conspirators can’t agree on whether Hungary should remain part of the empire and Rudolf’s duties as King of Hungary have yet to be nutted out, the crown prince wavers between wanting a more active role in Dad’s political and diplomatic affairs and dallying with his actress girlfriend. Unexpectedly, into his life enters the young Baroness Maria Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve) with whom Rudolf falls deeply in love. Their affair soon becomes public and threatens the stability of the empire. Rudolf is forced to choose between continuing as Crown Prince and upholding what his father believes is important but renouncing his affair, and renouncing his claim to the throne and leaving the empire with his lover for an uncertain and rootless future.

For a long film (over 2 hours) with a fairly bare-bones plot, “Mayerling” should have had considerable character development but Young’s stodgy story and direction don’t give Sharif and Deneuve very much to play with. Deneuve’s Maria is a colourless, almost weepy girl and Sharif, doing what he can with Rudolf, delivers a competent performance but without demonstrating to the full the crown prince’s lack of courage and will. The film strains to build up a supposedly unhealthy Oedipus complex relationship between Rudolf and his Empress mother (Ava Gardner) but the interaction between the two seems no more and no less than what a 19th-century aristocrat Catholic prince and his empress mum would do. Supporting actors flit about: the most impressive of these is James Robertson Justice, doing comic relief as an avuncular if rakish Prince Edward of Wales, future King of the British empire. James Mason looks as if he’d rather be elsewhere but perhaps as an emperor perplexed at his son’s restless behaviour and inability to stick the course as an inspector-general of the imperial army, he can do no other than look perpetually embarrassed. Gardner is good as the empress who never quite grew up herself and whose own restlessness influenced her son and special mention must be made of Genevieve Page who plays a match-maker of sorts between Maria and Rudolf.

The plot and sub-plot are not substantial and viewers can get a feeling that the sub-plot revolving around Rudolf and the revolutionaries was tacked on to attract a serious audience interested in history. The film earnestly tries to make a point about progressive politics versus political conservatism and the choice governments have to make between maintaining order and stability but risking staleness and decay on one hand, and giving people political rights and freedoms but risking conflicts such as majority rule and rights over the rights of minorities and potential mob rule on the other; this theme however remains shallow and undeveloped. It’s not only Rudolf who is wishy-washy about wanting to have his genuine Sachertorte and to eat it all without the responsibility and self-discipline he has to develop to achieve authenticity and a life of true values.

At least if the plot, sub-plot and themes prove as fragile as Deneuve’s angel looks, viewers can feast their gaze on the overly long scenes of ballet, waltzing and street riots during formal parades.




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