THE GREAT: Historical digressions for fun’s sake

Catherine (Elle Fanning) doesn’t know yet that she is destined to become the Great Empress of Russia that will command the country for the next three decades. She is just a young German princess– daughter of a bankrupt family– distinguished for a naive and optimistic vision of the future. Early on she claims that greatness awaits her because she once dreamed about a bear (a symbol of Russia) and she is actually engaged to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), successor to Peter “The Great”. Catherine’s gullible aspirations would be instantly mocked when she met the true nature of her husband and the Russian court that welcomes her. This is not a place as friendly as she imagined it for an outsider like Catherine and being Emperor’s wife doesn’t guarantee happiness or freedom of any kind, at least not initially.

Peter III is a smiley tyrant whose cute appearance is equally contrasted by acts of cruelty committed without remorse. The country is in the middle of a pointless war against Sweden, though Peter wants an opportunity to obtain a personal victory that rivals with his father’s past achievements. Apart from feeling pressed to overcome the shadow of his father, he also has self-confidence problems aroused by his mother’s contempt to him who once declared that his son would be the ruin of Russia. However, Peter has his corpse’s mother exhibited in a cabinet for all to see in the palace’s hallways. The Emperor needs to conquer his own epithet, no matter what amount of blood is spilled or how many glasses are violently crashed against the floor after every toast where Peter and his acolytes drink and scream “huzzah”. This is the dazzling and unpredictable world of Hulu’s miniseries THE GREAT, a not-so-truthful historical epic set in eighteenth-century Russia and about some of the “real-life” characters that inhabited it.

Peter’s court is a hostile environment for an illustrated woman who respects the philosophy of Descartes, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Catherine feels uncomfortable and it is not so long when she starts attracting mean-spirited demonstrations from others to reject her. The ladies in the court are a closed group of “mean girls” driven by gossip and passive-aggressive plots, they obviously despise a woman like Catherine who in their first meeting suggests them to read books. In the meantime, Peter fulfills his obligations as a husband to produce an heir with no interest in Catherine’s sexual satisfaction despite the initial enthusiasm of the young woman for their first time together. Peter doesn’t rape her at any moment, but the mechanical and dispassionate way that their mutual sex scenes are framed is part of the comical approach that distinguishes the entire series.

THE GREAT is a satire labeled as “an occasionally true story” even if more often than not terrible consequences shock us and deplorable character’s actions are treated with severity. It is a proof that you can find smart laughs through horror and suspense. For Catherine, the first warning sign that her husband is a dangerous man who doesn’t deserve to lead Russia is revealed when he kills a bear that he gave her as a wedding gift, just for having fun at a party. She confronts him publicly and then Peter beats her in the stomach privately. It is the tipping point for Catherine, who then considers ending her own life as her best option. Her maid Marial (Phoebe Fox) intervenes– she is a former court lady lowered to the status of servant due to his father’s bad behavior– explaining to Catherine that she has more power than she thought. If Peter dies, Russian monarchy’s allows the succession of the legit wife as new Empress.

THE GREAT was created (and almost entirely written) by Tony McNamara after the success of his Academy Award-nominated screenplay of THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Both proposals have much in common, as period comedies set in places ruled by a monarchy depicted in a cartoonish vision not entirely restricted by true facts. Substantially different in other aspects, THE GREAT is accessible compared to Lanthimos’ film and sustains much more fun in an intelligent way that doesn’t feel pedantic. As a series composed of 10 episodes (less than an hour each), it is a logical step for McNamara to create a less risky proposition that also can be highly seductive to make you want to go from one episode to the next without long breaks in between. It is also an eye-catching product that took good care of aspects related to art direction and costumes, particularly Catherine’s wardrobe that offers delightful variations from time to time. Slightly oppressive in some occasions, the action usually remains constrained to interior scenes inside enormous Peter’s palace. Even so the diverse cast of colorful characters– allies or enemies of the respective sides represented by Catherine and Peter– gives life to a strategy game where the balance of power could fall from one side to another at any moment.

Fanning and Hoult never had been so charismatic, beautiful, and histrionic before as in THE GREAT. Both actors have been deeply underrated over the years in spite of solid filmographies that flow between bold choices and commercial compromises. There are some of both things in this mini-series which might give them a path to be recognized as the stars that they have always been on the verge of. Notably, in Fanning’s case, this is probably a best career performance so far that could increment her chances to the future.

THE GREAT has so many things to enjoy, so its historical digressions are forgivable for the delights that provide in exchange. It’s an addictive binge-watch experience that leaves you craving for more. If the perspective of a second season seems unlikely (but not entirely impossible), at least will stir interest to do proper research about the real history behind the characters. Also, a good alternative for many would be to start watching CATHERINE THE GREAT (2019) another mini-series about the aforementioned Empress, this time, starred by Helen Mirren and produced by HBO.  In any case, THE GREAT is already one of the best series of 2020 and one of the stellar Hulu Originals produced by far.

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