Historical biopics are fickle creatures, balancing (or hopefully anyway) authenticity with actual entertainment value. Usually they’re ardently manufactured for maximum award efficiency; ergo, they focus on the former. And what makes The Great absolutely lovely is that it hones almost exclusively on the latter, selectively picking bits of history for the sake of its own satire. Some things are true, some things are kind of true, some things are entirely wrong. In each case, these things are essential for the story The Great wishes to tell, which isn’t exactly the story of Catherine the Great, but more so a story about idealism in the face of absolute power that uses her rise as a framework.
All of this is to be expected from Tony McNamara, who wrote 2018’s The Favourite, a wild picture that you either really adore or really don’t. If you’ve seen The Favourite, your temperature on that should correspond remarkably well to yours on The Great, though I’d argue that The Great has a key advantage over The Favourite: whereas that picture was forced to condense its story into a relentlessly mad 2-hour ball, The Great is a 10-episode miniseries, immediately giving it breathing room to marinate on its twists and turns (of which there are many). But the rhythm and essence between the two productions remain largely similar.
Taking place in the 18th century, Catherine (Elle Fanning), a Prussian royal, absconds to Russia to marry Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine is an enlightened woman, wishing to spread the evolving liberal ideologies in Europe, particularly France, to Russia. Peter is a reckless idiot with disdain for everything that doesn’t have to do with his creature comforts – vodka, hunting, eating out women, you get the idea. An obvious schism develops, until Catherine’s servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former Lady of the court, eggs Catherine on to begin a coup and take power. Over the series, we watch Catherine navigate the Court, the uniquely Russian politics within, and her own existential struggles as she tries to expand her influence and make said coup a reality.
That’s a hugely brisk summary, but the stakes and conflicts are easy to spot, and all are deceptively simple. Most characters in The Great lead well-established lives, many sharing dynamics we become privy to when Catherine’s rising presence threatens to disrupt them. A show that revolves solely around Catherine would be a bit of a chore, however, and The Great is aware of this, with each character having their own conflicts and desires independent of Catherine’s, like Grigor (Gwilym Lee) becoming increasingly tired of Peter fucking his wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield). Most, if not all, are tied to a bubbling sense of dissatisfaction with the state of Russian rule, which indirectly benefits Catherine in the end. Elegance itself.
The writing is the show’s strongest card and the dialogue especially is a triumph, managing to weave modern vernacular into the aristocratic idiosyncrasies of the time, which is quite a difficult feat to pull off well, more so to pull off as well as The Great does it. The show’s towing a fine line between “enough ‘fucks’ to be funny” and “too many ‘fucks’ to be believable,” but it updates the linguistic stylings of the 18th century into something much more palatable for contemporary comedy, rarely crossing that line. And the show’s very much a comedy, hilarious albeit extremely dark at moments (I’m trying to skirt spoilers, but the show does not hold back and is really an experience unto itself), and while the performances imbue a lot of life into the humour, the writing is so assured and proficient that you’d have to be trying real hard to botch it.
Fanning and Hoult are particular standouts, with their banter consistently placing as the funniest moments in the series – their emotionally winding relationship is an excellent juxtaposition to the chemistry between them – and both embody their characters with delightful confidence. Fanning does a terrific job of going from an Amelia Bedelia who wants to spread liberalism in a decidedly non-liberal state to a woman who spreads her beliefs with conviction and a stronger internal locus of control, realizing that idealism might not be the practical or necessary solution, depending on the circumstance. There’s still a distinct humanity to Catherine and you love to root for her – the show gets you anxious as to whether she’ll succeed, even though you know she obviously will because it’s not that detached from history, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Hoult plays a figure unlike the real Peter III, who was Prussian, completely hated Russia, had no desire to have sex with Catherine and was generally a frail idiot (though this Peter does have a propensity to tire of ruling and is pretty dumb, he’s more entitled than frail and frequently exercises strength plus blind confidence to get what he wants, and he also has a lot of sex with Catherine). Still, he’s compellingly good in the role, making the constant five variations of jokes he’s given funny each time. There’s a humanity to Peter as well, but it’s diluted by his lack of emotional intelligence to embrace it and overshadowed by his desire to be loved, even though for all intents and purposes he’s an extraordinarily shitty leader. And while the Peter in The Great isn’t true to life, it’s a necessary decision to present a foil to Catherine in a way that’s narratively and comedically satisfying.
The various other characters that litter Peter’s court are colourful in their own ways, and there isn’t a single questionable performance. It’s easy to like pretty well every one of them, even those who take a while to grow on you – some take a couple episodes, some take a couple biting quips. Many are immediately outstanding, like the very off-kilter Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), my personal favourite, and the calculating Archbishop (Adam Godley), referred to as “Archie” by the court (one of many examples of The Great‘s irreverence towards religion and… everything, really). Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), the meek scholar of the court and one of Catherine’s main allies, is arguably the weakest of the bunch and least interesting, but that’s no fault of Dhawan’s and it’s the character’s lot in the story’s life. Though to be fair, The Great‘s story feels propelled by the characters themselves rather than forced plotlines. Each action is organic, stemming from the person’s desires and feelings, and there’s nary a moment where you can feel the writer in the background. It makes the emotional moments feel genuine and even wrenching, the comedy more soulful. The Great is not a fan of convenience and doesn’t care to humour expectations, making for truly engaging viewing.
The Great is also quite nice to look at, vibrant where appropriate and making exquisite use of yellow and green, dull and foreboding where necessary (like the muted palette as Catherine and Elizabeth visit a battlefield, giving the soldiers colourful macarons from an equally colourful box, contrasting the cushiness of the court against the torment of war). The first episode, directed by Matt Shakman (a Fargo and Game of Thrones alum), offers striking, stately compositions, but those are unfortunately lost over time, maybe due to Shakman not helming any other episodes. The show excels in most technical aspects, though the editing is a bit jarring at times – there are a number of awkward, soap opera-esque scene transitions, and it can unnecessarily disrupt the flow of an episode.
But really, the characters are the hook of the show. One episode about a smallpox outbreak doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the narrative, really only reinforcing what we already know (Peter is an asshole, Catherine wants to help, Marial’s life sucks), but spending an hour with these people is such a joy that these qualms are trivial. They make The Great live up to its name, above and beyond the satire, the lovely costuming, the production values. I’m not sure if we’re getting a continuation, but I would be very thrilled to jump back into this bizarre little world, so here’s hoping.