TV Review – The Great (2021)

Tony NcNamara—creator of the Oscar-winning The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)—brings us yet another titillating “anti-historical” period piece…this time in the form of a television series. Starring Elle Fanning as Catherine The Great, The Great tells the “occasionally true story” of Russia’s longest reining female monarch. A Hulu original, the ten-episode series bends and blurs genre lines, once again showcasing McNamara’s iconic bacchanalian style. Dark comedy meets political drama in The Great, imbuing Catherine’s rise to power with zest and wit. Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sebastian de Souza, Adam Godley and Sacha Dhawan also star.

Arriving at Russia’s Winter Palace full of hope in late 18th-century, young Catherine is overjoyed to be wedding Peter III of Russia. That is, until she actually meets him. Hoult delivers a punchy performance as the childish emperor, more concerned with drinking vodka and sleeping around than winning a war. Yet Hoult makes the truly awful character somewhat moreish, with cut-throat sarcasm and a brattish disregard for those around him widening the narrative possibilities. He is spontaneous and comically straight-talking, perfectly fitting to the tone of the series. The crude and the comedic give The Great an anachronistic nature, garnishing the gory and the tragic with elegance.

Catherine’s naïve optimism manifests into a steadfast drive for success, saving Russia from the brutal dictatorship of her childish husband. Slowly and cunningly, she gains the support of her fellow peers in a plot to kill the emperor—and it’s this gradual incline that the plot is based upon. Originally a play, The Great is cinematic as well as satirical. There is a clear tone and aesthetic that cuts right through the story, never downplaying the politics (nor the entertainment value). Eccentric and radically unique, The Great certainly is one of a kind. Well, except for McNamara’s The Favourite, which somewhat overshadows the series.

A strong streak of feminism underpins The Great, derived mostly from Fanning’s bold and beautiful performance. Boasting a bewitching charm and innate lust for life, Catherine never fails to see the good in people, yet doesn’t ignore the bad either. The modern female protagonist—inspiring and empowered—is set amongst a deluded, brutally patriarchal royal setting, contrasting the soft with the violent. Again, this shares a similar quality to the powerful, female-lead lesbian trio in The Favourite. One that viewers came to love.

The Great is a daring, boisterous cut of fine television. With committed performances and clear direction, The Great never fails to shock nor entertain. Watch now on All 4 for a limited time only. Huzzah! The Great is also available to own on DVD and digital now.