Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.
Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.
Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions, horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.
The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.
The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.
There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.
I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state, worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.
It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.
To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).
James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.
Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.
If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.