Watch: A New Historical Drama About Marie Antoinette

PBS offers a revolutionary take on the iconic yet oft-misunderstood monarch in historical drama series Marie Antoinette

Drama queen

More than two centuries after her death, Marie Antoinette might still be best known for a phrase she never uttered: “Let them eat cake!”

“It’s one of those clichés that the French Revolution invented to criticize the royalty,” says Claude Chelli, the executive producer of a series that sheds new light on the queen of France, who in 1793 met a tragic, infamous end.

In the hands of writer Deborah Davis, best known for The Favourite, which in 2019 earned Olivia Colman an Oscar, Marie Antoinette gets peak-TV treatment, with a series that broadens the scope of what we think we know about the dauphine. “Our idea was to look at the iconic queen through a 21st-century lens to bring a fresh version of Marie Antoinette: a free-thinking, independent feminist—a far cry from the usual portrayal of her as a frivolous, vain and spoiled young woman,” says Chelli.

Marie AntoinettePBSWhen only 14, the youngest daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was sent to Versailles to marry the heir to the French throne, 15-year-old Louis XVI. It was a union that would seal the alliance between Austria and France. “Her only job was to consummate her marriage and deliver the next dauphin heir,” says Chelli.

The first season reflects on Antoinette’s rollercoaster of a journey from reluctant child bride to queen of France. “Marie Antoinette is a really misunderstood person. The film [by Sofia Coppola] showed Marie Antoinette as an It Girl and spender, but she is much more complex than that and much more modern,” says German actor Emilia Schüle, who plays the title role. “She was fighting to preserve her freedom, her privacy. She always stood up for herself. She really embodies our views today of equality, individuality, self-determination… and it was these modern qualities that eventually enabled her enemies to destroy her.”

Marie AntoinettePBSStepping into the tight corsets of Marie Antoinette gave Schüle a real sense of how the monarch walked through life. “It was a nightmare in the beginning,” she says. “When I got the part, I started flying out to Paris for wardrobe fittings. When they first put me in the corset, I got sick, actually. But it does really help to get into character because as soon as you’re in that corset, you really feel [like you are] in a cage, and you have to adapt to a completely new way of existing. You really get the sense that this was a means to suppress women at the time.”

The series also expands on what most know of Louis XVI, even if the evolution of the dauphin from reluctant passenger to supportive partner is a slow one. “What Deborah did so beautifully on this script was write big chunks of description before any dialogue,” says Louis Cunningham, who steps into the royal slippers of Louis XVI. “In the first three or four episodes, Louis barely speaks, and yet Deborah provided so much indication of what was going through his head—this is a kid who lost his dad and his older brother, who was never supposed to be in this position. Delving into his personality, his shyness, but the reasons for all of that, was something that she did really, really well.”

Marie AntoinettePBSWhile the focus in pop culture has often been on Marie Antoinette’s extramarital affairs, this first out of a planned three seasons focuses on the relationship between two spouses. “I think this kind of slightly unconventional love story that Deborah created between two young people who have to become friends before anything else can happen is something that is new,” says Cunningham. “I don’t think I’ve seen that before with these people.”

The show was filmed in and around Paris, using actual rooms inside the Palace of Versailles to set the scene. But while the Hall of Mirrors lends the series its necessary opulence, it is the royal living quarters, built on a soundstage, that offer authenticity. “Interestingly, we got to see a lot of the inaccessible parts of Versailles because of [the on-set] historian,” says Schüle. “As a tourist, you walk through all these rooms, but they are really official rooms. It was all a big show. They were actually sleeping in the small rooms behind that and there’s millions more floors behind that. We rebuilt these tiny rooms in our studio.”

Surrounded by money, protocol and structure, there is still an overwhelmed young girl figuring out her place, both in court and in the world. “She was really looking for a role in life. She didn’t just want to be a baby-producing person,” says Schüle. “I think that’s what happens today. We are so many things as women. And the same with Marie Antoinette — she was a rebel above all. She was a queen, she was a mother, she was an icon and she was a human being with needs. And she never let go of them.” 

Marie Antoinette premieres Sunday, March 19 on WTVS and KCTS