Entertainment » Television

Catherine the Great

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Oct 21, 2019
'Catherine the Great'
'Catherine the Great'  (Source:HBO)

Let's address the first and most important question first: Dame Helen Mirren is wonderful as the title character in the HBO miniseries "Catherine the Great." She's impassioned, mercurial, and unapologetic about who she is or what she wants; a the same time, she's deeply wounded, extremely brittle, and, as a result, constantly guarded.

There are other outstanding features to this series, such as the locations (filming took place in Russia, Lithuania, and Latvia), Rupert Gregson-Williams atmospheric music, and cinematographer Stuart Howell's heightened, sometimes surrealistic, lighting.

That, though, is about as far as the series goes for warranting praise. Puzzlngly, these four episodes are written more as a potboiler with a seventh-grade obsession on sexual hijinks than as a drama, much less a historical drama that ought to have been given some heft and credibility.

The story commences after the death of Peter III, who has been deposed and killed as the result of a plot hatched by Catherine and her onetime lover, Gregory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh). Once she has the throne, Catherine has little further use for Orlov or his brother Alexei (Kevin McNally) — although Alexei hangs onto his position in her court longer than his brother does, and even manages something of a comeback in later years. Otherwise, the brothers learn the hard way what every man learns who crosses Catherine's path: That she's a strong, capable woman, not to be trifled with, and not unwilling to kill, undercut, sideline, and freeze out anyone who opposes her or does not actively promote her interests.

It's a recipe for compelling television, and late in the Episode Four some of that promises is paid off (though in an often overly grandiose and even melodramatic way). Far too much time is spent on Cahterine's lovers — many of them young and toothsome, to be sure, but none of them, apart from Gregory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), possessing staying power. Only Potemkin is Catherine's equal in any sense of the word, and, fittingly, Clarke is able to share the screen with Mirren and hold up his end with great skill — when, that is, he's allowed to do more than shout and bluster. Sadly, though Potemkin is cut as a larger than life figure here — in love, in sex, in war — he's not given much depth but the script. Clarke sneaks in a few moments of dimensionality all the same.

Catherine and Potemkin are something of an un-power couple. With her ambition and vision, and his military brilliance, the two usher Russia to greatness onto world stage. Along the way, their decades-long partnership includes a sexual relationship — and a secret marriage — but even so, Catherine makes certain that Potemkin's power never eclipses her own.

Not that Potemkin much minds, except that he is not free to proclaim his love for her for all to see and hear. But there are compensations: Being more open-minded and Continental than not, the two allow each other a long leash; when Potemkin spies a man leaving Catherine's chambers while he dawdles on the stairs, he's far from jealous. In a later scene, he walks in even as a young boy toy is hurriedly pulling on his clothing, and he's utterly unperturbed. And in a scene that might have been livelier had it gone a slightly different direction, one of Catherine's young playmates complains that he doesn't know what his place should be now that Potemkin, back from the field of battle, is sprawled on Catherine's bed. "You're free to leave," he's told, and one regrets that scriptwriter Nigel Williams didn't see fit to pen something in the way of a command performance. It would have fit right in, given that the series is stuffed with bawdy scenes in which characters discuss affairs of state (or the state of their numerous affairs) in flagrante delicto. (This includes an unintentionally hilarious hand job that takes place in an opera box).

There's so much randy tomfoolery going on in the hermitage and everywhere else that the political and historic relevance of the times is sorely sidelined. Plots against Catherine's still-young reign? Easily dealt with by killing a political hostage and executing various troublemakers and spreaders of fake news. (One anti-Catherine rogue givers voice to the popular, but fictional, notion that she enjoyed, shall we say, specialized equestrian pursuits.) Catherine's ambitions to abolish serfdom and liberalize her nation, en route to Making Russia Great Again? Well, this fades from view for much of the series, but when her initial hopes for her reign are referenced again it's to let us know that those ambitions didn't quite pan out. The working stiffs get stiffed, even as Russia expands its territory and influence — including, crucially, the annexation of the Crimea.

If the political maneuvers of 18th-century Russia sound suspiciously up to date, that is, admittedly, one of the fun aspects of the series: There are times when the script feels ripped from the headlines — certain emphasized passages in the writing and certain directorial flourishes underscore contemporary parallels with unmistakeable glee, even as the dialogue unabashedly adopts today's British jargon rather than trying to sound strictly "Russian." But while that sort of thing is good for a drinking game, it only drives a final nail into the coffin of one's hopes for what should have been a grand and sweeping epic.

Instead, much of actual history ends up glossed over and just as much of these four hours turns out to be jumbled and forgettable — not least of all, Catherine's son Paul (Jospeh Quinn), who slips from memory any time he's not on screen. Even when Paul is the focus of a scene he's an impotent, watery presence. He lurks around the edges of the action with a perpetual sulky look, having been cut out of the country's vibrant military and political happenings.

Colorful, but rarely regal, "Catherine the Great" falls far short of its subject matter. Perhaps the addition of a laugh track could improve the miniseries; until then, do your best to view it through the lens of a lowbrow rom-com, which is how the bulk of the series works best. Seen from that angle, the occasional scenes of true dramatic power seem transcendent.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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