The Great (Hulu) Review: Historical but Wickedly Funny Take on Catherine ‘The Great’

Rhea Srivastava -

The Great (Hulu) Review: Historical but Wickedly Funny Take on Catherine ‘The Great’

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Format: Mini-Series
Platform: Hulu
Movie Rated: 16+
Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Language: English
Digital Premiere Date: 15 May 2020

 
What is the Story About
There have been many attempts to present an irreverent side to history in the recent past (shows like Drunk History and Another Period coming to mind almost immediately). Nothing, though, has come quite as close as Yorgos Lanthimos’ Academy Award-nominated romp about the sexual politics in Queen Anne’s court, The Favourite. ‘The Great,’ Hulu’s delicious new offering comes strikingly close to the insolent sense of humour of the film, and why shouldn’t it be so… when one of its writers Tony McNamara serves as creator, writer and producer of the show. The 10-part miniseries is perhaps just a masterclass in cheeky and sharp dialogue and acting with abandon.  Just to be clear, in a lot of the show’s promotional material, they have mentioned it to be more ‘anti-historical’ than a retelling/interpretation of history (the show even comes with an ‘occasionally true story’ fine print). Thus, you can take the foundation plot points of how Catherine came to be ‘The Great’ czarina of Russia, but it would bode well if not much else in the detail was taken too seriously. 
 
In 1761 or around, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is a royal from erstwhile Prussia, who is married off to Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), Czar of Russia. Neither Peter nor Catherine are ‘great,’ the former for being in the incompetent idiot of a ruler who knows as little about the tactics of war as the number of ladies who he probably hasn’t slept with, and her… well, she’s new and ‘not Russian.’ Her initial excitement wears off and she soon realises that she must take the reign into her own hands, even if it means organising a coup against her own husband. All of this is pretty much true,  but all that we get on the way probably isn't. Just as well, this is better and it may keep you from consuming legitimate historical fact for a while. And it is all propelled forward by two remarkable lead performances at its centre. 
 
Analysis
The Great gives little to no shit about showing the bleak and decadent side of royalty (and perhaps, modern politics where our figureheads serve the same purpose as a dying monarchy). This is Russia and it is, according to its characters, lightyears behind the modern thinking of Europe. The women are illiterate and discuss local gossip, the men binge on vodka and make merriment. There is a gruesome and garish side to this ‘pseudo-court’, and one wonders if it is just to evoke laughter or to make a greater point. Perhaps we get used to this style of opulence but even till its last episode, it still remains very funny. 
 
Even if the writers let go of some of the more obvious facts of the Emperor and Emperor’s life - their ages, their marital time together, their children, their lovers, and the final coup, I wouldn’t go to the extent of dismissing the decadence as fiction. At the end of the day, some liberties are almost essential to make this piece of entertainment that much watchable and binge-worthy, and some are just more appropriate to the realities of the monarchy. Why does it matter if Peter didn’t actually serve his guests and his wife a feast on the same platter like the one embellished with the heads of severed Swede soldiers from the war? Was the manslaughter any different in reality? Perhaps he didn’t set the Empress’s library on fire, but did he not thwart her plans to improve the quality and reach of literacy and education across the public? The Great may be high on entertainment value and laugh-out-loud moments, but it does not forget the astute observations it attempts to make on gender politics, equality, and rights in its historical setting. 
 
The only point at which it starts faltering a bit is in the second half where Catherine’s tenacity and vision for Russia have been established, and the constant tug-of-war between her and Peter is a given. Even then the episodes are at an hour-long and don’t always justify the length. 
 
Performances
To make one root for Empress Catherine, Peter has to be almost too capricious and vile, and yet be pleased enough with himself for us to know that he possesses no redeeming quality. Hoult plays this part as if he was born for it. From every unfunny joke that has the whole court at his knees to each broken vodka glass, every dismissive comment on his wife’s demeanour and every expletive thrown at the Swedes, Hoult breathes vibrancy and vigour through Peter as if giving a form to a ‘medieval rock star.’ In the middle though, somewhere, he is also shown gaining vulnerability and falling in love with his scheming wife and we almost wonder if things are taking a turn for the better in their marriage. That is, of course, all part of Catherine’s end-game, which is fantastically portrayed by Fanning. The Empress is strong-willed but naive, she is intelligent but unaware of the battle ahead. Yes, she is shallow in the beginning but also wonderfully complex in her hunger for power. Together, Hoult and Fanning make a couple whom you love to hate together and hate to love apart. There is also a host of seasoned performances which are, if not more, impressive like Phoebe Fox who plays Marial, a chambermaid who aides the Queen; Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo; and the devastatingly charming and handsome Leo, played by Sebastian de Souza, who is thankfully the Empress’s lover.
 
Highlights
The Great’s biggest achievement is that you don’t have to be a history major to fall in love with it. In fact, having no context of the history it so confidently deconstructs would have its perks. The show is written as a reinterpretation of significant time but could read as any point of time anywhere in the world. The dynamic between its characters could very well exist today, and their motivations to rid off each other are definitely as significant. Secondly (and try not to take this as my dismissal of period programming - I enjoy The Crown as well), but this type of history is just more fun. 
 
Drawbacks:
In some ways, it can come across as a me-too of The Favourite, perhaps trying to replicate the biting nihilism of the film. If you are familiar with that kind of storytelling, you may find this one lacking in depth or satire. It is also a stretched plot. Catherine rises, falls and then rises again. Multiple schemes to take Peter down are often mismanaged until it comes together at the end. But even if so, the performances of this show elevate its writing wherever needed, and there are smaller scenes which take the cake.
 
Music and Other Departments
As is expected with a show of this mounting, The Great has immense production value. It is shot extensively at the Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy (which is the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg here). There is immense detail to costume design, set decoration and art direction, and together with the cinematography and lighting capture the lush opulence of the Russian court. There is a very subtle usage of background score, mostly western classical because the show is so dialogue-heavy and leaves little space for empty silences. Having said that, there is a pertinent pop song at the end of each episode for a hysterical soundtrack. 
 
Did I Enjoy It?
Hell yeah! It's funny, classy, and makes you wish there was another season on the way.
 
Do I Recommend It?
Definitely! I challenge you to not binge-watch The Great. 
 
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