When we first meet The Great’s the young Catherine (Elle Fanning), she dreamily pushes herself back and forth on a swing intertwined with lush flowers. The year is or about 1762.
That’s not a exact date because Great, which begins Friday in Hulu, presents itself as “a sometimes true story” and is full of joyful and intentionally ahistoric elements: it eludes entire generations of Romanov, shunts of real events in time and in time, and entirely invents a multitude of characters and situations intended to give students of Russian history a series of aneurysms.
So Catherine is about to leave her German house (technically Prussian) to marry Peter, the Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and she faints in anticipation of everything that will happen – living in a palace, being an empress married to a wise and good man ordained by God to lead Russia into a golden age of education and enlightenment – and also, not for nothing, its wedding night. Her girlish notions of the physical act of love are romantic romance, yes – but then Catherine is an idealist, and deeply convinced of her spirit, charm and intelligence.
The palace, of course, turns out to be a nest of vipers. Her life as an empress is one that leaves her helpless, trapped, seething with turmoil, aching to have an impact on radical social change, but without the tools to do so. And as for Peter… well.
Played with a mercurial bravado by Hoult, Peter is a nightmare – a sociopathic boor poured into a pair of tight leather pants. Not an idiot, but the kind of rude and boastful narcissist that a life of obscene privileges engenders, or at least nurtures. He is emperor as a shady, lazy and dissolute rock star, raised to await the love and loyalty of those whom he considers utterly insignificant, except to the extent that they continue to produce a constant supply of l attention that feeds him. Hoult holds a ball, and it shows; it looks at Peter’s childish carelessness while allowing us to see intermittent flashes of humanity – an injured quality that has something to do with the way he was raised. “Someone should understand what is going on between a guy and his mother,” he said, “there would be money in there. “
Great was created by Tony McNamara, based on his 2008 play. McNamara then co-wrote in 2018 The favouriteand if you’ve seen this movie, you know what to expect here – yes, turmoil and corsets, wigs and snuffboxes, but also crisp retorts, tearing insults and sizzling dialogue with a withered spirit.
What is missing, of course, is the idiosyncratic presence of The favouritedirector of Yorgos Lanthimos. (It is unfair to expect it, just as it is unfair to compare the series to the film; it is also, given the amount of creative DNA they share – in creator, subject, production design, actor (Hoult) and tone – inevitable.) There is director flourishes in the series, but the sustained and surrealist vision of Lanthimos is absent. Therefore, Great seems quite a clearer affair to business – the company in question being its sinister plot of change of allegiances and palace intrigue.
Which makes sense, given the difference between serial TV and a single movie. As we saw recently in 2017 Twin Peaks: the return, when authorism and serial narration come together, the result may appear to be the product of conflicting impulses.
The intrigue of Great, spread over ten episodes, is a movement of constant narration. Catherine’s status goes up, down and up. Plots to kill Peter come together, then fail over and over again. While this may seem less than satisfactory, along the way, there is much to see.
Phoebe Fox plays Marial, Catherine’s sardonic servant, with benevolent humor. Belinda Bromilow, as a punctilious but excited aunt of Peter, exudes a great concern for Catherine, even if she always carefully calibrates her own statute at court. There is of course the performance of Hoult’s tour de force and the way he manages to qualify it in more emotional colors, episode by episode.
But the nicest surprise here is Fanning, a skilled drama actor who hasn’t had many opportunities to show his comedy pieces during his career. She’s fantastic here, because Catherine’s bow changes her from naive to horrified to resigned to determined, while retaining her (very funny) inflated sense of self. GreatThe strength of ‘is the way it gradually rounds off characters who appear flat and wide in the pilot, but allows them to retain the qualities that made them easily recognizable in the first place. Above all, Catherine does not suddenly give up on her self-importance as soon as she realizes her situation, she simply learns to channel it productively.
Fanning is also careful to show us that Catherine’s desire for progressive social change in Russia is motivated by a mixture of fuels that are equally concerned with the greater good, and her desire to be universally acclaimed for doing good.
Great seems eager for the public to draw contemporary parallels with the events it portrays, and those moments cannot help but feel tense. An episode about smallpox, for example, pamphlet anti-vaxxers, which sets off like an exaggerated wink to the public. However, his extensive, lacerating criticism throughout the season of how privilege blinds the wealthy to injustice and curdles the soul seems to resonate.
McNamara’s 2008 play lasted for Catherine’s long life and called upon an older actress to represent her in the second act; the television series only deals with his youth. Should Great get the second season she deserves, or more, hoping that we haven’t seen Fanning’s last one yet; she laid the emotional foundation for the series, and it would be fun to see her build a new palace.