Why The Great should be your next box set
James R | On 09, Jul 2023
Season 3 of The Great premieres on 14th July. This review was originally published on 21st June 2020 and is based on Season 1.
“No, you don’t talk my love,” says Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) to his new wife, Catherine (Elle Fanning), as he introduces her to court. It’s a swift rebuke, a dismissive correction and an immediate sign of where her place is considered to be: quiet, in the bedroom, giving him an heir, while he swans about drinking, shouting and shooting rabbits. Catherine is hurt and upset by what she thought would be a chance to make a difference to the country of Russia as co-ruler – and it doesn’t take her long to start plotting a way to get on even footing.
If all of this sounds like a serious, political drama, you’re probably thinking of Catherine the Great, Sky and HBO’s miniseries starring Helen Mirren as Russia’s longest reigning female ruler. The Great, from the writer of The Favourite, is as far from that as it’s possible to get: it’s hysterically silly, delightfully garish and knowingly fast and loose with facts. Wondering what this version of Catherine has to do with the actual Catherine, whose marriage and situation didn’t resemble anything remotely similar? Then keep wondering: this isn’t about to offer up any answers. What it offers instead are laughs – and lots of them.
While The Favourite found tragedy, comedy and a fascinating dynamic between its leading female trio, Tony McNamara’s screenplay here digs into the sexism that’s rife in Russia’s court – and, indeed, everywhere else. It makes the most of its TV format, using every additional minute and hour to flesh out the difficulties of navigating life as a woman in 18th-century Russia. While Catherine is young, idealistic and romantic, Peter is infantile, petulant and selfish – a manchild in a position of authority whose toxic cowardice and arrogance makes the country a dangerous, unfair and depraved one.
Nicholas Hoult is having the time of his life as the pathetic Peter – who, unlike his dad “Peter the Great”, doesn’t even have a moniker. He races through life indulging his every whim, from shooting people in the kneecap to buying Catherine a bear. He dotes on his dead mother’s skeleton, is certain that every woman loves having sex with him, and doesn’t think twice about putting someone in a box and dumping it in the river. After almost every dubious action, he downs a vodka, throws the glass into the nearest wall and yells “Huzzah!” – and then expects everyone else to do the same.
And yet what’s fantastic about The Great is that there’s more to him than that hilariously atrocious caricature; he’s strangely considerate as well as gasp-inducingly thoughtless, buying in strawberries to try and cheer up the dismayed, disappointed Catherine, and seizing on any little thing that they might have in common. He genuinely seems impressed by Catherine’s wit and intellect, even while he has absolutely no interest in nurturing it. “I don’t want to kill you, you’re not a bad person,” is the closest he can come to a compliment, but he does actually mean it nonetheless.
Elle Fanning, meanwhile, is incredible as Catherine, managing to be foolishly naive and wonderfully forthright, often in the same sentence. She’s a quick study, shifting subtly between friend, teacher, fighter and plotter – even if she can’t quite manage to seduce someone to her treasonous thoughts when the time comes. She’s supported by the marvellous Phoebe Fox as Marial, a former lady demoted to being Catherine’s handmaid who has her own spiky strain of resilience – and is the only other one to see through the frivolous futility of court life.
Quietly stealing scenes from both is the chameleonic Sacha Dhawan, who plays member of the court Orlov, a man torn between timid loyalty, frustrated rebellion and a passionate belief in independence and free will. Also wavering in his political allegiances is Adam Godley as the wonderfully sinister priest figure, who is tasked with keeping everyone in line.
The result is a fun ensemble comedy that revels in the chance to see each person trying to figure out what the others are up to. As Catherine aims to kill her husband and overcome the church to win the favour of the court, the ripples of discontent and hope collide with the smothering norms of tradition – a cocktail of simmering tensions that erupt in the funniest way possible.
Dances, hunting trips and attempts at breakfast all suddenly become comedic set pieces, as The Great never misses an opportunity throw in a one-liner, a cruel retort or Nicholas Hoult shouting “Huzzah”. The fast-paced dialogue whizzes past with the energy of a modern screwball comedy, echoing the modern sensibilities behind Catherine’s enlightened approach to power and gender. She reads Descartes and tries to educate other women; Emperor Peter cuts enemies heads off and serves them alongside dessert.
So streamlined is the script that, while there’s impressively no pauses for clunky exposition, the hour-long runtime of each episode actually starts to feel too long. That, however, is hardly a complaint when each instalment is filled with so many incisive, satirical jokes. Gorgeously shot by Matt Shakman (Game of Thrones) and Colin Bucksey (Better Call Saul), The Great has all the visual gravitas of a sumptuous period drama with none of the airs and graces. It’s at once a romp, a rousing feminist thriller and the most fun history lesson you’ve had in your life. It may not be educational, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?