Catherine the Great, Sky Atlantic
- Brian Donaldson
- 3 October 2019
Disappointing take on the legendary Empress despite Helen Mirren being in splendidly rich form
'What lies they tell about women in power'. And few actresses would have a better insight of that than the speaker of this line, given the number of monarchs Helen Mirren has portrayed in her career. Asides George III's wife Charlotte and both Elizabeths, she can now add Catherine the Great, the myth-laden leader of late-18th century Russia, during a time when that country was finding its place in the world, feeling adrift and hostile to the Turks in the south and Europe in the west. The more things change …
In this Sky Atlantic four-parter written by Nigel Williams (Elizabeth I) and directed by Philip Martin (Prime Suspect), we see Catherine slowly descend from a liberal progressive on taking the throne to a book-burning despot who revels in declarations of war and luxuriates in reports of the ensuing carnage. The drama sets out to debunk a few of those myths about Catherine, chiefly attempting to undermine centuries-old gossip about her nymphomania, but still spends an awful lot of time discussing carnal affairs. She haughtily declares that her problems would be eased with 'a good fuck', while there are plentiful scenes where her chief military ally and lover Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) walks in as she frolics in her quarters with a young manservant, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.
Unlike Game of Thrones which cultivated a language which sounds both old-world and vaguely contemporary, here actors are forced not to smirk while saying lines such as 'let's get this show on the road' and 'can't live with him, can't live without him'. And while you can see the marketing rationale behind getting a strong British cast together (Rory Kinnear, Gina McKee and Kevin McNally for three), the decision to make a drama with 'Russians' speaking, quite literally, the Queen's English, can't avoid discombobulating moments such as Catherine berating a foreign envoy for speaking in German.
There's no doubt it's easy on the eye, and Mirren is suitably arch in the title role, but there's a coldness to this portrayal that leaves you barely bothered when the key figures begin dying off. Still, a wonderfully demented cameo comes from Paul Kaye as the rebel leader of a failed uprising, and it's a rare to hail the depiction of a drunk Scotsman, but Clive Russell's vodka-laced sage is arguably the most sympathetic character on show. He continually imparts the most wisdom while not sounding as though he's been dropped into the wrong century.
Episodes watched: 4 of 4
Catherine the Great airs weekly on Sky Atlantic from Thursday 3 November, 9pm. All four episodes available on NOW TV.