Reviews of two series about Catherine The Great of Russia from HBO and Hulu

June 30, 2020
Catherine The Great and The Great

CATHERINE The Great is Russia’s longest reigning queen (from 1762 to 1796). She became the empress after she staged a coup against her own husband, Peter III. They were married when she was only 16 and endured to live with him for two decades before usurping the throne. 

Under her, Russia became bigger and stronger and her reign is considered as the Golden Age of Russia. There were many TV shows and movies about her, among them a Russian TV series made in 2014, “Ekaterina”, a movie version starring Catherine Zeta Jones in the title role of “Catherine the Great” and a TV movie in 1991 with Julia Ormond as the “Young Catherine”. 

Late last year, HBO came up with “Catherine the Great” with four episodes starring Helen Mirren in the title role. It starts after she has overthrown her husband, focuses mainly on her romance with Potemkin (Jason Clarke), and ends with his death, followed by hers.  

Last month, HULU and Amazon TV released “The Great” for streaming, saying it’s only “occasionally true” as they really took a lot of outrageous liberties in telling Catherine’s story. This is written by Tony McNamara based on his own play. He wrote the Oscar-winning “The Favourite”, so you know that the tone of the show is darkly comic, bawdy, irreverent and lowbrow, with plenty of cuss words and expletives. 

Catherine’s real name is Sophie and she comes from poor royalty in Prussia (what is now Poland). Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth chose her to be Peter’s wife and they got married in 1745. “The Great” starts with Peter already the emperor of Russia: a selfish spoiled brat who only likes to party and is so proud of what he calls his “massive cock”. He quickly crushes Sophie’s hopelessly romantic dream of having a happy marriage when he practically rapes her on their wedding night. 

Sophie is renamed Catherine after their wedding and she is so disappointed with her boorish husband. She’s more educated, loves to read books and familiar with the works of noted European authors like Descartes and Voltaire of that era. She’s full of progressive ideas and frustrated with her dumb husband, so she plans the coup with the help of her lady in waiting, Marial (Phoebe Fox) and Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), a fictional character but in the Helen Mirren version, we meet the real one, Grigory Orlov, her long time lover who she drops after overthrowing her husband.

In “The Great”, Peter has a regular sex partner, Georgina (Charity Wakefield), the wife of his own best friend, Grigor Dymov (Gwilym Lee). Georgina is a fictional character as his mistress in real life was a woman named Elizaveta Vorontsova. He also gets Catherine her own lover, Leo Voronsky (Sebastian de Souza), with whom she later really falls in love, but he’s also just a fictional character.

“The Great” runs for ten episodes and you can see the padding to stretch the material because they want it to end with Catherine finally staging the coup. It’s not conclusive, though, and it seems like they want to have a second season just like what BBC did with the current Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown” which is now on its 4th season, with Helen Mirren as the elderly queen. This should make Ms. Mirren proud as she can claim she has played both     queens on screen. Actually, she already did Elizabeth II in “The Queen”, for which she won an Oscar.

In Mirren’s version, Peter is already dead when the show starts, but his rightful heir, an illegitimate brother called Ivan, a young man in his 20s, is being held captive in prison and would be murdered later. In “The Great”, Ivan is a mere ten year old boy who was brutally killed by Peter’s aunt so he won’t succeed in the throne. 

In the final episode, Catherine learns she is pregnant but thinks the dad is her lover, Leo. She tries to stab Peter but he disarms her and locks her up. As we’ve said, the ending is ambiguous. Many threads are left hanging in the air. 

In contrast, Mirren’s version is faster to watch with only four episodes but, honestly, you'd be wondering why Catherine became so great. It focuses more on her love affair with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) and each time Mirren says he’s such an attractive man, you know it’s not true because he looks chunky and overweight. 

You don’t even see Catherine’s concrete accomplishments in expanding the Russian empire by conquest and diplomacy. Mirren dominates her role even if she’s required to play a Catherine that’s about 30 years younger than her age in real life. But the show itself, though it has violence,intrigue and nudity, is cumbersome to watch. We won’t recommend it as a must-see as it’s actually more about Potemkin than Catherine. The series practically starts with his arrival and ends with his death, immediately followed by Catherine. 

In contrast, “The Great” seems to be a satire on Trump as Peter is also a stupid leader. There’s a threat of smallpox epidemic, but just like Trump who downplayed the gravity of the corona pandemic saying it will disappear “like a miracle”, until it got so severe and unmanageable with millions becoming infected, Peter is also oblivious to its dangers and it’s Catherine who takes action by doing her own version of the vaccine against smallpox. Trump would later even suggest injecting disinfectant as a cure and taking an anti-malarial drug that have harmful side effects. Peter’s idiotic style of leadership and governance really mirrors that of Trump.

Catherine quickly recognizes the extravagance of Peter and his court whose favorite is expression is “Huzzah! (hooray in English)” The more time she spends as empress, the more enlightened she becomes, rejecting to engage in the trivial squabbles of the petty women in court. She believes Russia should be more open to Western concepts and ideas, like social change and abolishing serfdom to help the impoverished Russians. So we get to root for Catherine as she’s really has good intentions and has a broader world view, unlike the selfish and narrow-minded Peter.

The series often lags and there were moments when we want to drop it, but what carries it through is Elle Fanning’s captivating portrayal of Catherine. She has a glowing face with rosy cheekbones and delivers her beautifully florid lines quite convincingly, an embodiment of a Disney fairy princess whose lines are peppered with F words and engages in a lot of sex, with one scene showing her reaching climax as Peter is, in his words, “eating her pussy”. But in the end, despite Fanning’s wonderful presence, “The Great” does not really live up to its title. If you liked “The Favourite”, this one feels like its very much inferior “balahura” version.