TL;DR – This is a truly bizarre but entirely compelling show, that blends fiction and reality with a deft hand
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
A couple of years ago there was this odd film that exploded into the world out of nowhere, it was an exploration of Queen Anne full of intrigue and irreverence. When something like that blasts out into the world you try to find out what the creators will do next, so when I heard the latest series around Catherine the Great was writing by Tony McNamara one of the writers of The Favourite I had to give it a watch and it was a good choice.
So to set the scene, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is a starry-eyed young noble who has had the fortune to be matched with the current Emperor of Russia, Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). She brings him a branch as a present of her love, living in this world of fantasy right up until the local archbishop ‘Archie’ (Adam Godley) checked to see if she was still a virgin. The realities of the Russian court were nothing like she had thought, with violence and bitterness at every turn. Still, she found comfort in her maid Marial (Phoebe Fox), the odd wisdom of Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), and the books of Orlo (Sacha Dhawan). Maybe she could find a place here in this strange land … or maybe yet, could not this strange land bend to her will. Now we will be looking at the series as a whole and as such there will be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
I should mention from the start if you are someone who has studied European history, especially Russian history, you need to prepare yourself before you start watching. The tag line of the show is ‘an occasionally true story’ and boy does it mean it. They condensed the back end of the timeline to make Peter the III the son of Peter the Great, not his grandson, Elizabeth is still alive, Ivan (Charlie Price) dies when he is 9, not 20, and it goes on and on. As well as this, the show takes several liberties with the time and location in the A Knight’s Tale school of period drama. Usually, I would find this frustrating, but here I don’t because every change, every design choice is purposeful and you feel it in the bones of the show. Does it matter that in real life Peter’s mother died a couple of days after his birth, no because of the way it is used … all be it creepily … to show Peter’s state of mind.
Another thing that The Great shows in abundance is that there is a clear need for a location scout Emmy. I am not sure how much of this is pure set design (and if a lot of it was kudos to the set designers) but the location they take you too immediately rip you back in time to the 1700s. The wide halls, the tapestries a plenty, the exquisite moulding, truly these were some outstanding buildings that they found. This also continues to the grounds with everything from manicured gardens to horrific battlefields rendered in detail.
This is also a deeply political show, as in it spends most of its run time exploring the many facets of how politics work. You want to make a coup, well there are material things you need and also immaterial. So it is great to have all the regional ministers, army, and the court behind you, but not if they don’t have faith in you. This means that while this is a show filled with satire, mockery, and lots of truly awkward sex scenes, it is also the best show to explore the political realities of life that I have seen since maybe The Expanse. It is also a show that is not afraid to switch from light-hearted mockery and silliness to moments of reality like at the battlefield or when Vlad (Louis Hynes) gets the pox.
While everything that I have mentioned is gravy the heart of the show is its characters and how they grow and change through the season. These ten episodes chart the roughly 6 months between Catherine arriving at court and the start of the coup and everyone changes a lot in those six months. Orlo goes from this political mover that has survived the dangers of court to being a radical capable of getting his own hands dirty, Grigor (Gwilym Lee) starts as this bastion of confidence and by the end is flailing, and Archie gets to be in the position of power that he wants but then clearly still keeps his faith which is a rare occurrence. One of the biggest changes from reality to fiction is Peter himself who was in reality maybe the more liberal of the two and very much not the Russian arch-type that he is in the show. From all accounts, Nicholas Hoult is a decent chap, so I was honestly a bit surprised just how well he plays the self-absorbed arse that is The Great’s Peter that is until I re-watched The Favourite.
One of the more interesting parts of the show can be found in the role of Aunt Elizabeth, who begins the show as this sort of weird matriarchal presence of the former regime that everyone kind of ignores and lets her be wacky because they think she has gone quite mad. However, the more the show goes on the more she is shown to be deeper than everyone gives her credit for. She has a keen political insight and knowledge, and if it was not for her, Russia would be in an even worse state with Peter. Also, it behoves us to talk about the great in The Great with Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great. No character goes through so much change as Catherine does, arriving at court completely naïve as to the realities she had signed up to. Indeed at many points, she is almost killed because she does not or would not play the game. However, still, she manages to keep their core ideals intact through the time and she also continues to grow with knowledge and understanding. Elle Fanning brings so much to this role to the point that I don’t think this would have worked without her. There are these small moments throughout the show, like how she responds to the glass smashing after a toast, that shift and change throughout.
That is not to say that everything in the show worked, while it was good at managing the tonal shifts they did not always nail them, leaving some unintentionally awkward moments in places. Also while I know the focus of the show is on Catherine and indeed conceptionally the show feels like it ends right at the moment she becomes “the great”. In reality, it felt like the show ended on its penultimate episode rather than concluding where it should have.
In the end, do we recommend The Great? Yes, yes we would. I would say that there are a lot of sex scenes, so if that is not something you wish to see, then this is not going to be the show for you. To add to this, the wanton use of violence can be very confronting at times. However, I found it to be engaging from start to finish and I do hope we see a conclusion to this in the future. Though I should point out that it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a drinking game where you take a drink every time someone says huzzah, because it would not end well at all.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Great
Directed by – Matt Shakman, Colin Bucksey, Bert & Bertie, Ben Chessell, Colin Bucksey & Geeta Patel
Written by – Tony McNamara, Tess Morris, James Wood & Gretel Vella
Created by – Tony McNamara
Based on – The play by Tony McNamara
Production/Distribution Companies – Thruline Entertainment, Echo Lake Entertainment, Macgowan Films, Media Rights Capital (MRC) Channel 4, Hulu & Stan
Starring – Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, Belinda Bromilow, Bayo Gbadamosi & Sebastian de Souza with Danusia Samal, Louis Hynes, Florence Keith-Roach, Jamie Demetriou, Christophe Tek, Charlie Price, Richard Pyros, Alistair Green, Abraham Popoola, James Smith & Stewart Scudamore
Episodes Covered – The Great, The Beard, And you Sir, are no Peter the Great, Moscow Mule, War and Vomit, Parachute, A Pox on Hope, Meatballs at the Dacha, Love Hurts & The Beaver’s Nose