First look UK TV review: Catherine the Great
Ivan Radford | On 03, Oct 2019Reading time: 3 mins
Mirren. You’ll find the name in the phone book, right next to “Monarch”. So accustomed is the screen icon to playing rulers past and present, it’s no surprise that she should be crowned Catherine the Great for Sky and HBO’s lavish new period drama. She’s surrounded by people who are familiar with how she works – the four-part drama is penned by Nigel Williams (Elizabeth I) and directed by Philip Martin (Prime Suspect) – and the show benefits from bending to fit her imperial presence, even if that leaves some of its other elements wanting.
We first meet Catherine in the aftermath of the coup against her husband, Peter III. Overthrown in 1762, his departure paved the way for her take power – but when you use an army to assume control, the suspicion that the army might do the same again to you is hard to shake, and so Catherine has to divide her time between two things: ensuring that nobody’s about to boot her off the throne and eyeing up all the tasty Russian men in uniform.
The latter is one of the major focuses for the programme, which doesn’t shy away from her reputation in the bedroom. We even see her companion, Countess Praskovya Bruce (a brilliantly game Gina McKee), giving her potential partners a dry run behind closed doors beforehand. That’s how we come across Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), who catches Catherine’s attention at court and will, eventually, become her lover.
In the meantime, there’s also Ivanovich Panin (Rory Kinnear) to suspect of not being the loyal adviser he claims to be, Prince Paul (Joseph Quinn), her son by Peter III, who makes no secret of his desire to take power himself. Kinnear is fantastic, as always, managing to seem honest and likeable, even as we witness him going behind Catherine’s back. Quinn, too, is convincingly naive and spineless as the immature would-be Emperor. But there’s frustratingly little time to flesh our their supporting characters, as so much focus is placed on Potemkin and Catherine’s relationship.
That wouldn’t be a problem if their romance were more convincing, but their chemistry doesn’t quite spark to life over the first two episodes of the drama: Catherine exclaims repeatedly how handsome Potemkin is, but that mainly comes across as an attempt to convince viewers at home that their mutual attraction is more believable than it is.
Individually, however, Clarke and Mirren deliver strong turns. Clarke is boisterous, smart and confident and Mirren is deceptively complex, managing to jump from shrewd and stubborn to coquettish and romantic, and then back again, often within the same conversation. They’re backed up by gorgeous, colourful visuals and sumptuous costume work, which cements the 18th-century credentials. The decision to have everyone speak in English, though, with varying accents, conspires to stop things clicking together.
Paul Kaye’s cameo as the attempted leader of a rebellion is a fun highlight, and there’s intrigue to be found in the unrest and political tensions (both internal and external). But the more time we spend in the underwhelming boudoir, the less time we get to enjoy the backstabbing and brazen power plays. The result is an impressively mounted but sometimes hollow affair that never becomes more than the sum of its parts. With two more episodes to go, however, and Mirren clearly enjoying herself, it would perhaps be unwise to rule out her latest monarch just yet.
Catherine the Great premieres at 9pm on Sky Atlantic on Thursday 3rd October, with episodes airing weekly and the full box set available on-demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.