With films based on actual people it’s always tempting to take a peek at the historical record. Fictional characters will invariably be created and genuine ones omitted, myths will be treated as facts. No-one can resist adding a dash – or a bucketload – of romance to prosaic reality. In the case of The Great – Tony McNamara’s fictionalised account of the early career of Russian Empress, Catherine the Great – I couldn’t begin to list the deviations from the truth.
In this ten-part series streaming on Stan, McNamara plays so fast and loose it would be tedious to ennumerate all the instances in which ribald imagination takes over from history. It’s best to treat The Great as a bawdy pantomime in which Catherine is no more of an historical figure than Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
If this offends your sense of decency don’t even think about tuning in, but McNamara’s boldness is to be preferred to the half-hearted efforts of filmmakers who don’t know where to draw the line between historical accuracy and entertainment. Sofia Coppola couldn’t make up her mind with her confused bio pic of Marie Antoinette, and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was offensive in its frivolous approach to World War Two.
McNamara has already shown his willingness to turn imperial history into low comedy in The Favourite (2018). The Great was actually written before that movie, and helped shape director, Yorgo Lanthimos’s thnking. The success of The Favourite in turn allowed McNamara to secure a contract for his proposed series. The scene has shifted from Britain to Russia, but the method is essentially the same. The costumes and settings may be sumptuous but the figures who inhabit them are only too human. They live in the 18th century but speak and act like characters from a present-day sitcom.
The motto of the series could be: Excess breeds success. The language is broad, the sexual manners outrageous, the blood and guts flow freely. The plot, on the other hand, could hardly be simpler. Catherine (Elle Fanning) arrives from her native Prussia to become the wife of Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) the youthful Emperor of Russia. The court of St. Petersburg turns out to be pure anarchy, and Peter an imbecile. Within a few episodes she has begun to plot a take-over which will see her ascend the throne, fulfilling the magnificent destiny she has always believed to be her due.
Don’t expect a rapid result. The Great is a long shaggy dog story that keeps Catherine’s coup on the boil while we imbibe one bizarre scene after another with the same rapidity that characters knock back shots of vodka.
Nicholas Hoult steals the show, playing Peter as an amoral child who has never had to grow up. He takes his own greatness for granted, viewing absolute power as a licence for absolute pleasure. His retainers are obliged to laugh sycophantically at his “japes”. His best friend, Grigor (Gwylim Lee), has to smile happily while his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield), submits to Peter’s sexual urges on a daily basis.
There must be limits as to the degree of humiliation Peter’s retainers will tolerate, but each episode only seems to unleash new refinements. It’s not that Peter is especially evil, he’s just monumentally stupid and insensitive. In his directness and lack of guile he’s almost likeable.
Elle Fanning’s Catherine, like her real-life model, is a would-be intellectual who finds herself surrounded by backward and ignorant aristocrats. The ladies-in-waiting can’t read but they’re well-versed in intrigues and petty malice. There is no interest in the Enlightenment ideas with which Catherine hopes to draw Russia out of the dark ages. For almost everyone else at court, change is unthinkable.
She finds an ally in her personal maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former noble who has been consigned to ranks of the servants because of a spectacular indiscretion by her drunken father. The only glimmer of intellect belongs to Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), who tries to use his role as advisor to introduce a few discreet reforms. Orlov’s arch-enemy is the Archbishop (Adam Godley)– universally known as “Archie” – who sees it as his duty to resist every proposed innovation. The only other major figure in the inner circle whom Catherine needs take seriously, is General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), the permanently pickled head of the armed forces.
When his sexual relations with Catherine prove less than satisfactory, Peter decides she needs a lover to cheer her up a bit. The chosen man is Leo (Sebastian De Souza), a small nobleman with a large appendage, willing to do his duty for the Motherland. Leo is the love interest, but Catherine’s dalliance with him never sits easily with her autocratic ambitions.
The comic style of The Great is not far removed from the Carry On movies, just slightly more extreme in terms of expletives and bloodshed. It’s hard to sustain this kind of romp over the course of ten episodes, but although the story can feel over-extended at times, it’s never boring.
The series is a poor advertisement for those absolute monarchs who ruled by divine right rather than through any personal qualities. The real Peter III was such an oaf that Nicholas Hoult’s portrait is almost an improvement. Catherine wrote that Peter’s talk was of a “dullness” she had never seen equalled. He was a delinquent who brought about his own downfall with his impudent and foolish behaviour.
If one wanted to find a broader context for this series we wouldn’t be looking to feudal Russia, but to the United States today, where another ruler, affectionately dubbed an idiot, a dope and a moron, by his own (former) aides, is trying on the mantle of absolute power. Yes, like every other film and TV series made today we can find a trail back to Trumpland! One wonders if Melania nurtures any fantasies of incipient greatness.
Created by Tony McNamara
Starring Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Gwilym Lee, Sasha Dhawan, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge, Sebastian De Souza.
Australia/UK, rated MA 15+, 10 episodes of 50 mins each
Streaming on Stan
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 May, 2020