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Sisi (2009) is a lighter version of the real story, but still worth a look

Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

Cristiana Capotondi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sisi
Cristiana Capotondi as Empress Elisabeth of Austria

A TV show on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, popularly known as Sisi, has been on my wish list ever since I came across her story whilst on a trip. It was only recently that I heard of a German production called 'Sisi', and naturally, I could not wait to watch it. After seeing the two-episode miniseries, I feel like, if I only knew Sisi as the legendary beauty that she was, then this 2009 series would be more than sufficient. Cristiana Capotondi was a vision as the erstwhile carefree girl who became an Empress at the age of 16. David Rott looked like a Disney prince from my childhood. Yet the true story of Sisi was a far darker tale, one that the 2009 series largely eschewed in favour of a prettified version.

'Sisi' began with young Elisabeth still living an idyllic life with her parents Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, the half-sister of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Sisi was forced into accompanying her mother and sister Helene to meet Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi's mother Ludovika and Franz Joseph's mother Princess Sophie of Bavaria were sisters, and arranged for the marriage of Franz Joseph and Helene. Upon meeting them, however, Franz Joseph was very much taken not by the quiet, pious Helene, but by the younger Sisi.

Whilst the domineering Archduchess Sophie thought Helene had the suitable temperament for an Empress, she was less impressed with the freer Sisi. Franz Joseph, however, would not be swayed. The sisters had no choice but to agree to the marriage between Franz Joseph and Sisi.

Most of the accounts I read portrayed Franz Joseph as passionately in love with Sisi, whilst Sisi did not quite return his affections. There was one video I saw, however, where the historian stated that she believed Sisi was in love with Franz Joseph, as he was with her. This latter version was what 'Sisi' showed, a couple who were smitten with each other from the beginning, a husband and wife team who confounded the expectations of the strict Habsburg court with their mutual affection, and even consummated their marriage on the grounds of the castle, ironically, the one place where they actually had privacy.

Though Franz Joseph occasionally gave in to his more liberal wife's wishes, he remained his mother's son, an emperor who had no particular wish to reform the rigid structures either at the palace or at the massive realm that he ruled. Sisi's worldview probably aligned more with Franz Joseph's younger brother Maximilian, a royal who like Sisi enjoyed popularity amongst the common people.

The villain of Sisi's real life tale was her mother in law, who famously named the Empress's first daughter after herself (Sophie) without consulting the mother, then took charge of the child's upbringing (Spoiler: this was not how baby Sophie's naming was depicted in the series). Whilst the Empress's frustrations about not being able to raise her children as she thought best was shown, the series still felt like a softened version of real life events. As pleasant and diverting 'Sisi' was, I felt mildly disappointed that Sisi's struggles within the Habsburg court were not as well framed as they could have been. That the miniseries ended early in Sisi's life, long before some major events took place (like the tragic Mayerling incident) was understandable, because going further would have taken 'Sisi' away from the romantic tone the show chose to adopt.

Yet, I'd still recommend 'Sisi' to anyone interested in watching period dramas. This is a decidedly light take, compressed because it only had two episodes, but as a period romance, it works. If you'd like to watch two attractive aristocrats fall in love, then 'Sisi' just may be the show for you. I have been longing for a TV series about Empress Elisabeth's life, and 'Sisi' sated my hunger, at least for now. However, if Netflix or Showtime or any other network or streaming service wants to create another take on Empress Elisabeth's tale, hopefully a far longer and more detailed one, there's ready audience right here.

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