Terence Young’s Mayerling is a story of what might have been. I mention this film as “Terence Young’s Mayerling because that is how it’s referenced on the screen. I’m really not sure that director Terence Young, most famous for his work with the James Bond series, really justifies “name above the title” treatment. But nonetheless he gets it.
On the surface the story has alot going for it and should have made a great picture- sorry for tipping my hand there on how the balance of this will run. Most know (well I hope they do in this culturally devoid world) of the story of the fall of the House of Hapsburg and their Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the short, tormented, and untimely end of the life of the Crown Prince of Austria, Rudolf in 1889. For the true history buffs, you will recall that World War One was started when the ultimate successor to Rudolf, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Yugoslavia.
Rudolf (at right, with mistress Vetsera) was himself in fact an extremely unhappily married man, with numerous extramarital liaisons, many of them extremely well documented. He was also a severe morphine addict. The long-lived Hapsburg Empire was in trouble, as ethnic strife and constant related turbulence made the future existence of the Empire teetering, at best. After concessions to the Hungarians (prior to 1899), the Empire was technically considered a dual monarchy, with Emperor Franz Joseph being also King of Hungary.
To all in the know, drastic reforms were needed to save the Empire and even then it’s future was in doubt. Rudolf felt strongly that he was the man to bring the Empire into the twentieth century with the reforms that the empire needed to survive. Unfortunately for Rudolf, his father Franz Joseph (left, in an 1888 photo) was rather long lived, not passing until 1916. By that time the Empire was doomed not only from ethnic trouble, but also the strain of a war for which they were ill prepared.
In spite of all this gloom and doom, Vienna in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was perhaps the pinnacle of artistic greatness. Great works of music and art – Brahms and the esoteric Gustav Klimt, for example, thrived and produced unparalleled works of greatness during this period. So all was not lost.
Unfortunately this really does not translate onto the screen. Omar Sharif portrays the Crown Prince Rudolf, with Catherine Deneuve as his mistress of the hour Baroness Vetsera. The venerable James Mason and Ava Gardner appear as Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elizabeth, respectively.
Although the names sound insanely great on the screen initially, and on paper they are hard to beat, they simply do not work on screen. Sharif and Deneuve lack any chemistry, and whether historically accurate or not, one cannot believe from what is on the celluloid that either of these two wooden characters care enough for one another to actually give up one’s life.
Gardner and Mason fare little better. Gardner does not have enough on screen time to make much of an impression, but what we do see doesn’t lead one to believe it would have mattered. Inoffensive enough, her performance seems only to bat eyelashes and play along with the subliminal incestuous storyline involving her and Rudolf.
Mason, on the other hand, is perhaps the only star here who gives an ‘average’ performance. This does not sound like much, but relatively speaking, speaks volumes. Although there are times where one definitely gets the impression that Mason is rethinking while on camera his decision to do Mayerling for the most part he does an adequate job of conveying the majesty but opposition to change which characterized the later years of the empire.
Not helping matters is a pedestrian script which does little- if anything- to convey the turbulence of the times or the gravity of the situation- either for the Empire or Rudolf. I have a challenging time placing blame on the actors as they are given a very paltry script to work with.
On the upside, the cinematography is very nicely done as it was done on location in Austria. Production values are quite high, with sets, locations, music, cinematography, and costumes all deserving top marks. Very hard to question Mayerling in this regard.
Mayerling still is not available on DVD and personally I haven’t seen it cross the TCM listings of late – again I haven’t looked either. You can get it on VHS should you still have a player. I enjoy anything with James Mason so perhaps in that sense I rate this one a bit too high. In reality, unless you are a completist of one of the stars, you can skip this one, but I would also recommend not skipping it should you see it on TCM. If you are a completist, get it.
If you are a history buff, the allure is marginal. What should be a magical and mesmerizing story simply isn’t.
One is better served watching the 1935 (some sources claim 1936) version, also entitled simply Mayerling, with Charles Boyer.