- Brian Donaldson
- 8 January 2021
Bawdy and brutal anti-historical romp about 18th century Russia and a ruling elite that is mad, bad and very dangerous to know
Honestly, you wait decades for dramas about Catherine The Great and then two come along within a couple of years of each another. As it should be, Catherine The Great starring Helen Mirren and The Great with Elle Fanning as the iconic Russian monarch could barely be any different, the former all arch and (probably) more historically accurate, the latter wearing vulgar modernity on its period sleeve as though The Favourite had just emerged from a rough seeing to by The Thick Of It.
Adapted and substantially elongated by Tony McNamara from his own 2008 play (clearly the Australian writer is a fan of this kind of regal-based thing given that he also co-wrote The Favourite), this ten-part first season features Nicholas Hoult as Peter III, an infantile, rash and despotic leader who takes a wife, the German/Prussian/Polish princess Catherine, for the sole purpose of keeping his line going. Quickly disabused of the fact that he might be a gallant emperor and a caring husband (the hurt he inflicts on her isn't exclusively psychological), Catherine begins to plot a post-Peter future for Russia, slowly attempting to enlist the likes of a drunkard military leader General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), the meek but enlightened state advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), and Leo (Sebastian de Souza), a lover chosen for her by Peter (who is busy putting himself about elsewhere) but with whom she ignites genuine feelings.
The comedy is bawdy and breakneck, with a decidedly over-used catchphrase ('huzzah!') punctuating most of Peter's exchanges, while the drama of court machinations should keep another part of its audience happy. Both sides, though, might wilt at some of the gorier sequences, with vicious assaults aplenty and an episode revolving around a regimented timetable of mass torture launched by Peter in order to weed out insurrectionists. While the slapstick buffoonery and casual brutality can feel a mite stretched at times, the story of a determined and compassionate woman trying to change the world around her is a compelling one. Cleverly, the final episode ends on an emotional and stirring high, a single gunshot setting up a no-doubt equally uproarious second season.
Channel 4, Sundays, 9pm; first episode available now on All 4.