HBO to Russia: If you meddle with our elections, we’ll meddle with your history.
Just months after HBO and Sky had a surprise audience and critical smash with Chernobyl, the premium cable giant and the Comcast-owned European pay-TV operator are going further back for another glimpse into the Russian past with the four-part miniseries Catherine the Great. Don’t expect this exercise in English-accented time travel to have anywhere near the same impact, mind you. Catherine the Great is less viscerally effective, and its timeliness, while absolutely there, isn’t nearly as propulsive. This is a more predictably stagey piece of embalmed history, though one should never underestimate the pleasures of watching Helen Mirren in reliably strong form.
Adapted by Mirren’s Elizabeth I scribe Nigel Williams, Catherine the Great takes a decades-spanning look at the legendary Russian empress whose reign lasted from 1762 to 1796. The series follows Catherine (Mirren, of course) as she staves off threats from her petulant son Paul (Joseph Quinn) and a slew of Russian nobles taking offense at the idea of a female ruler. Against the backdrop of various clashes with the Turks and the expansion of the Russian empire, we see Catherine’s various romances, including a series-opening relationship with the dangerously insecure Gregory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) and a more sustaining love with Gregory Potemkin (Jason Clarke).
Catherine’s reign was notable for its attempted progress in human rights, its revitalization of Russia as a European superpower and the sheer number of urban legends it spawned. The presence of so much power in the hands of a woman, particularly one with little shyness about her sexual appetites, led to rumors about her countless lovers and, most notoriously, a tall tale involving the illicit role of a horse in her death.
The truth, Williams argues exhaustively, is much less interesting than that. The process of reclaiming Catherine’s name here means only one veiled reference to her love of horses and reducing her famous libido to a string of affairs with various Russian himbos and one true and meaningful long-term romance with Potemkin, who is described as the most gorgeous man alive frequently enough — perhaps only once or twice, but it feels like more — that some viewers are likely to be confused by how unassumingly Clarke is approaching the military leader’s general aspect.
The miniseries’ title feels restrictive, because Catherine the Great becomes at least as much Potemkin’s story and it becomes that almost immediately. Any sense of Catherine’s own ideology and leadership is contained in the opening hour and then she spends most of the rest of the duration mooning over Potemkin, dedicating her time to pushing his legitimacy in the government and advocating on behalf of various strategies that the series attributes to him. Not only might the series be more appropriately titled Catherine & Gregory, by its closing installments it’s probably closer to Gregory & Catherine.
In effect, the miniseries trims the tawdry and scurrilous details from the monarchy’s biography and replaces them with a much more conventional story of a woman whose greatest ideas are supplied by or on behalf of a compelling man. On her own behalf, Catherine mostly fights a repetitive battle to maintain control, a process that undermines her authority even more, since Williams can’t make any of Catherine’s adversaries or conflicted and wavering allies into dimensional characters. Orlov pops up to sneer, Paul pops up to whine and Rory Kinnear’s Panin pops up to stutter ineffectually. There isn’t a memorable performance or part among them and Catherine’s only interesting relationship, with the equally voracious Countess Bruce (Gina McKee), features only early and then vanishes as time passes.
And how much time is passing? It’s truly unclear. You can chart some of the years through Potemkin’s facial hair and aging makeup, but the rival characters — basically all named “Peter,” “Alex” and “Gregory” — and interchangeable conflicts practically demand watching Catherine the Great with Wikipedia open. Otherwise, on an actual historical level, the effort borders on being completely meaningless.
There’s an easy and effective approach to the series that’s just as a reminder that the language wimpy men use to minimize strong women is the same through the ages, whether it’s Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren, the latest incarnation being the ridiculous sex-drenched smear campaign against Warren from the fringiest of right-wing fringes. Maybe Williams kept the Russian political specifics intentionally vague to allow for added universality, but it becomes just dull writing, especially at this length.
Still, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Mirren getting to play a regal sex bomb, a nice return to the feisty excellence upon which she built the earliest stages of her career before she reached an age at which Hollywood (and even its British equivalent) would prefer to treat women as untouchable. Catherine the Great isn’t spectacularly graphic (or “spectacularly” anything), but Mirren is fiery enough that nudity or superfluous thrusting aren’t necessary. She and Clarke are fine, if unremarkable, together. And it is, again, astonishing how few of the other supporting performances, McKee aside, register in the slightest.
Working with tighter writing, director Philip Martin has done far superior royal work on Netflix’s The Crown. Navigating primarily through Catherine’s Russian palaces and estates (played primarily by Lithuanian and Latvian locations), Martin depicts the court’s opulence largely in natural and found light and Catherine the Great is consistently quite pretty to look at, although no pacing or momentum really develops. Potemkin is constantly going off to one war or another and instead of building battle scenes, Martin focuses on the aftermath of conflict, building pastoral tableaus that I have to assume are based on the work of a Russian artist I’m not cultured enough to instantly identify.
I think there’s a tight two-hour movie about Catherine the Great that could be far more entertaining or a six-hour miniseries that could be far more informative and illuminating. This iteration amounts to an inevitable eventual Emmy nomination for Mirren and little more.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Rory Kinnear, Gina McKee, Richard Roxburgh, Joseph Quinn
Writer: Nigel Williams
Director: Philip Martin
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)