Dark Comedies Period Pieces TV

The Great (2020)

The Great (2020)
Creator: Tony McNamara
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

Dark Comedies Horror Summer of Horror

Come to Daddy (2019)

Come to Daddy (2019)
Director: Ant Timpson
Writer: Toby Harvard
Cast: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Garfield Wilson
Genre: Horror, Comedy
Country: Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before anything else, I would like to bless Elijah Wood for his hand in giving us this recent trend of off-kilter horrors; namely, Mandy and Color Out of Space of late. Each are extremely odd, extremely bemusing pictures, very much for a specific audience, but goddamn do they do that niche well. Come to Daddy is no different. Whether that’s something that entices or puts you off is one of the more subjective questions here, and I can’t really blame you for either decision.

Come to Daddy shares a bit with the two movies above, though it’s far more in Mandy‘s camp: both movies tell a story about somebody unwittingly forced into conflict to rectify some sort of loss, both feature strange and darkly witty villains, and both have various sequences that satisfyingly use the colour red. Come to Daddy doesn’t match the intensity of Mandy‘s immediate otherworldly pull and is milder in almost every conceivable way, but the family resemblance is clear.

In this instance, we have Norval (Elijah Wood, boasting one of the most egregious haircuts put to film over the past year), an obvious loser whose desperation to be someone pushes him to look like a gentle Joe Exotic, trekking off the beaten path to reunite with his father, Gordon (Stephen McHattie), after receiving a letter asking him to visit. And since this is a horror picture, you can assume this won’t be a joyful rendezvous. Gordon is a creepy asshole and the movie wastes no time establishing this as we endure uncomfortable gazes and incredibly awkward conversations between him and Norval, which, dare I say, gets a little tedious as the movie waits to play its hand.

Thankfully, Come to Daddy is clever enough to anticipate where we think this is all going and bluntly shuts it down. It’s a trick used twice to excellent effect, shifting gears for the entire movie, and all the little fake-outs throughout (like a fantastically prolonged sequence with Norval gloating about being a big deal in music, only falling apart thanks to Elton John, revealing both he and Gordon are insufferable in their own ways) force you to just sit down and absorb how things pan out. The progression from terse words to Elijah Wood wildly stabbing a guy in the dick is very quick indeed, so dwelling on and trying to work things out doesn’t do favours for anyone.

This isn’t to say that Come to Daddy is a revelation in story structure, but it’s fun, knows its twists, and executes them well with little regard to the peripherals – a fancy way of saying the characters need to function more so on their personalities. How fortunate, then, that the people who inhabit Come to Daddy all vary on a spectrum of bizarre, with the only one approaching a remote semblance of ‘normal’ being local coroner Gladys (Madeleine Sami), who still opens with a joke about a fresh corpse. Even though the movie doesn’t care to do much with many of these characters, everyone involved makes an honest effort to stand out, succeeding where it matters.

Wood does well to embody the shift from hapless wannabe to an angrier, still mostly hapless person who’s had everything but has made nothing, and has yet to resolve the emotions that followed his father abandoning him and his mother, who remains offscreen, when he was 5 despite it being 30 years since. This loss isn’t nearly as tangible or raw as that of Nicolas Cage’s wife in Mandy, but it still fuels Norval’s every action, driving him to alcohol dependency, later driving him to kill so he can a) survive, and b) keep the option for a relationship with his father steady, emphasized in the end when they’re bloodied on the beach outside his father’s home (which itself is lovely. We’re never given a good orient for its layout, so it’s a confusing and lonely place), eventually holding hands, giving both Norval and his father a quiet sense of peace.

The other notable performance belongs to Michael Smiley, playing the villain Jethro, who’s very much like a murderous, Irish Weird Al. While I wouldn’t exactly call Come to Daddy hilarious – even though many seem to attribute it as a comedy first, which might be misleading since it’s really more of a comedy of circumstances (a scene where Norval is trying not to wake up a motel room full of swingers comes to mind) than a comedy of “ha ha” jokes – Smiley receives the bulk of the lines that come close to that and he’s wonderful with them. There’s a terrific shot of him hobbling along a road in the movie’s little town, mostly dark save for a blinking red light, with Norval following behind, neither bearing a sense of urgency nor much energy at all (leading to the funniest scene in the movie). At that moment both men are one and the same, merely tired shadows playing a tired game. There isn’t much in the way of striking imagery in Come to Daddy aside from that, with its visual style most aptly summed up with “dark”, but the occasional flashes of colour, like a cellar bathed in exquisite red, are delightful. These flashes are more prevalent as the intensity begins to boil, and I’m inclined to believe that Come to Daddy would improve much if it trimmed the time to get to Twist A, then the time in between Twist A and Twist B, since everything after that last interim is fantastic. Everything in-between is generally more content to beat around the bush, a direction that works well in retrospect after the movie’s revealed its cards, but in the moment starts to become a drag that one doesn’t anticipate from a 95-minute picture.

Come to Daddy isn’t ever scary, though it does play around with Gordon’s creepiness for the first 20 minutes, maybe. This isn’t a critique, it doesn’t go out of its way to scare you. But for those who aren’t aware of what they’re getting into (and this is a low-key enough movie where I don’t imagine that’s a huge problem) there’s a decent-to-good chance they’ll be underwhelmed, or unsatisfied. It’s a very particular kind of movie, one that sees horror as a reason to tell fun and eccentric stories, and it’s a welcome change from the usual haunts and jaunts we get these days. I’m well within Come to Daddy‘s target audience, though, so your mileage may vary. It’s maybe a milder option among its niche (save for a couple moments of spectacular brutality), but Come to Daddy functions perfectly well as a routinely involving strange adventure, and is one of the better choices if you’re on the lookout for such a thing.