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'The Great' Might Not be Historically Accurate, but it's Definitely Fun to Watch
May 16, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

Just a year after Helen Mirren portrayed Russia’s iconic ruler Catherine the Great, Catherine is back on TV with a startlingly different look.

The Great, whose first season premieres Friday on Hulu, stars Elle Fanning as a much younger Catherine, whose plot to overthrow her awful husband, Peter III, and seize his throne, unfolds in ways that are riddled with comedy.

It sounds like an odd dramatic quest, and it is. The result is not unpleasant, however, and an ensemble full of strong performances makes The Great the kind of fun we can all use right about now.

Those performances start with both Catherine and Peter (Nicholas Hoult), whose thoroughly boorish persona stops just short of cartoonish.

This Peter is the sort of totally entitled ruler who fires pistols into a room full of partygoers and doesn’t care if he hits someone. He takes women as he pleases, though he pleases only himself, and makes it clear that anyone who doesn’t roar and say “Huzzah!” to all his lame jokes could be hung at dawn.

When Catherine wants to start a school that teaches women to read, which Peter thinks they have no need to do, he burns the building down.

He’s as inept on the violin as he is with military strategy while proclaiming himself a genius at both. He has the insecurity, the empathy, and the emotional maturity of a 6-year-old, and yet because of his position, everyone must constantly tell him he’s the eighth wonder of the world.

All in all, he’s a good case study in the downside of dynastic rulers. In a democratic land where the citizens can select their rulers, we can assure ourselves, no one with those sorts of traits would ever hold high office.

Most important for the storyline of The Great, Peter is as boorish and insufferable to his wife, who was imported from Austria as part of an aristocratic political deal, as he is to everyone else.

So she decides to fight back, assembling a core posse that includes Peter’s disgruntled aide, Grigory Orlov (Gwilym Lee), and Marial (Phoebe Fox), a woman who was demoted to servant because she didn’t show proper deference.

Amid a strong cast, Fox stands out, flashing the withering tongue and spot-on wit that makes it clear why she would make someone like Peter and his boys’ club nervous.

Orlov is one of the characters plucked from the true story of Catherine and Peter. Those folks are sprinkled among other characters invented or repurposed to make this drama work.

This much seems to be true: The real-life relationship between Peter and Catherine was as strained as The Great makes it appear.

Nor does anyone else, save Peter, seem very happy with anything. His court is portrayed as unhappy and, at times, buffoonish, usually after the constant heavy drinking in which almost everyone seems to indulge. The women are portrayed as subservient and vaguely unhappy even as they understand that showing any hint of this unhappiness could cost them their comfortable stature as pampered and bored ornaments.

This is consistent with the fact that The Great leans heavily on sexual humor, most of it crude and initiated by Peter. Just FYI, the language is more graphic than the visuals.

Where The Great does get graphic is in the occasional bursts of barbarity, like a whole riff involving severed heads. The tone borders on comic, to the extent there’s anything funny about severed heads, illustrating how The Great aims to find some of its humor in outlandish absurdity.

But Fanning’s portrayal of Catherine as an endearing conniver gives the show a solid foundation, and it’s such a pleasure to watch her scheme with Marial and Orlov that viewers almost won’t want them to neutralize the insufferable Peter too quickly.

She’s got plenty of time before she grows up to become Helen Mirren.

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Jun 26, 2020   |  Reply
Doug Monroe
I have just recovered from the ultra-psychedelic "The Scarlett Empress" (1934) and now this! But I admire the wry line "In a democratic land ... we can assure ourselves, no one with those sorts of traits would ever hold high office."
May 16, 2020   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Doug: So happy you watched both great Elizabeths! It's a wild compare and contrast, isn't it? -DB
Jun 7, 2020
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