Catherine the Great was a monarch who ruled Russia for over three decades in the 1700s. She was the country’s longest running female leader, and helped bring the icy nation into the full participation of political and cultural life present in the rest of developing Europe. She was so prolific, historians have named her era of rule as the Catherinian Era or Russia’s Golden Age. Her influence and impact on Russian culture and society is legendary and, at least according to the newest show to tell her story on Hulu, she swore more than a drunken Russian commander.
Given the wondrous performances and quality of series like The Crown, The Last Kingdom, Chernobyl and more; one would not be remiss for assuming The Great to be the next prolific period drama about the story of an iconic Russian monarch. After all, Catherine the Great’s story has everything needed for an award winning and grounded tale of cunning, subterfuge, power, murder and intrigue. However, The Great is unlike any other period drama currently on television. Everything from the immaculate set design, fantastic acting, witty dialogue, entertaining narrative and outstanding clothing design; belies what is most likely one of the best dark comedies of 2020.
Every episode of The Great begins with the show’s title earmarked with an asterisk and the phrase “an occasionally true story”. The phrase does an excellent job of setting the expectation for the content contained within the show. Essentially, a very loosely based retelling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power. In this sense, the series follows a truly genre-bending rise through 18th century Russian history. A tale filled with more humour than the time period would ever allow, yet tinged with just enough realism to remind viewers of the reality and plight of Catherine’s true story.
Interestingly, The Great is filled with an inordinate amount of anachronisms and inconsistencies ill suited to the time period, yet they work incredibly well when paired with the periodic use of modern idioms and music. These unique facets are complemented by a superb cast filled with people of colour (unlike the Russian period it is based on), and the fact everyone speaks the English language. The result is a unique and wholly irreverent historical comedy skirting the line between hilarious truth and dark fiction.
Leading the cast is Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great, a young and naive Austrian noble who has been betrothed to Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). Unlike the fairy tale marriage she was promised, one with sex so good it would cause the planets to align and her being to become one with her husband, Catherine soon realises how Russia is nothing like the rest of Europe; and Peter only sees her as his personal ‘heir making machine’ and nothing more. With this in mind, the show does not shy away from the explicit, vile and damning realities of what life was like for women and peasants in periods of pre-civility and equality, whilst under the misguidance of an all powerful and ruthless monarch. Consequently, the narrative does a fantastic job of guiding viewers through Catherine’s plight as a young and immature woman with incredibly ambitious ideas of grandeur; who is at the mercy of an idiot emperor with mommy issues who will screw anything with a hole and a heartbeat.
Although coated in some delectably dark humour, Peter as a character is often so terrible in his actions and idiosyncrasies that it can be quite challenging to continue to enjoy watching him on screen. However, his complexities are what make him serve as both a vile villain and source of comedic gold. In this sense, Hoult expertly handles the role. His talent of adeptly spurring viewer hatred and unusual pity for a truly flawed character with humour, is nothing short of spectacular. Any other actor in this role would fall to either side of being truly unlikable or unbearably humorous, but Hoult teeters this fine line with perfection. The same can be said for Fanning, whose portrayal of Catherine is outstanding.
Catherine is obviously the more complicated of the two royals, and Fanning does a superb job of beautifully portraying the character’s many dualities. Whether it is marrying naiveté with ice-cold calculation; vulnerability with passion; or ridiculousness with awe; she takes command of every scene with aplomb, and is able to successfully convey a sense of historically believable drama, despite the absolute ridiculousness of whatever situation is currently unfolding in the background. Fanning is an utter joy to watch and her darkly humorous plights as Catherine the Great, whether commenting on incidents of avoiding 18th century rape or the intricacies of popping eyeballs out of captured Swedes, are excellently portrayed with the actor nailing every comedic beat with grace and panache.
Complementing Fanning and Hoult’s performances are Peter’s mindlessly cunning aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Catherine’s highly emotional lover (Sebastian De Souza), Peter’s best friend’s wife and “friend with benefits” (Charity Wakefield), Catherine’s cowardly coup d’etat partner (Sacha Dhawan), Archie the religious zealot (Adam Godley), and so many more entertaining and unique characters. As an ensemble, they offer one of the most irreverently funny, anti-historical, and hilariously macabre comedies on television.
From the pilot episode through to the finale of The Great, viewers will bear witness to the often humorous, and at other times ghastly, 18th century antics of young royals with too much power. As such, it entertainingly explores how the ideologies of religion and the aristocracy are juxtaposed with those of freedom of thought and educational enlightenment. The historical accuracies are further blurred by an engaging narrative built around humour, subterfuge and violence; with some outstanding and engaging performances along the way. The Great is truly unlike any other period drama on television, and its unforgettable irreverence is a breath of fresh air to be enjoyed by all.
|Runtime||Ten Episodes (+-45-60 minutes)|
|Acquisition||Streamed on Hulu|