'The Great': TV Review

Hulu
A tart confection.
5/15/2020

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult star in 'The Favourite' co-writer Tony McNamara's take on Catherine the Great for Hulu.

Should Catherine the Great have risen to power as ruler of Russia? History offers an enthusiastic yes — the 18th-century monarch earned her epithet of "the Great" by reforming Russia, expanding its borders and presiding over the country's Enlightenment movement. But in Hulu's new biographical dramedy The Great, starring Elle Fanning as a 20-year-old Catherine, the answer is more uncertain, if no less preordained.

Arriving six months after HBO's Catherine the Great, starring Helen Mirren as an older queen who's not only used to power but practically embodies it, this arch, hyper-verbose girl-power exercise, which bills itself as "an occasionally true story," finds its titular character scheming to take her idiot husband Peter's (Nicholas Hoult) crown for herself.

The Great's deliberate anachronisms, surreal exoticisms and justifiably cynical observations of the ways privilege breeds rot recall Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite — an unsurprising comparison, since its Oscar-nominated co-writer, Tony McNamara, is the creator here.

A more surprising comparison might be Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Despite her aristocratic bloodline, The Great's Catherine is a bookish idealist more provincial than she realizes. The German princess arrives at the Russian court to find herself a prisoner in a gilded cage, which happens to be stuffed with pet bears, heads on pikes, moose-lip desserts and a venerated decomposing corpse. The beast to her Belle is Peter, who ends their brief first meeting by saying, "I have to get back to my whores. Whorses. Horses. Going riding!"

Olivia Colman's Queen Anne in The Favourite — with her howling impatience, self-indulgent weakness for sex and fatty foods, and 17 bunnies, each symbolizing a child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth — was an utterly original character. Hoult, who co-starred in The Favourite, plays a more familiar figure — a young man who, save for his genuine delight and skill in cunnilingus, would have made for a bro-rrific frat president three centuries later.

The Great makes no bones about the fact that he is Russia's greatest menace, dragging the country into a pointless war and violently enforcing arbitrary laws (such as a ban on beards) just to prove his might to a cowering, acquiescent court. To his unhappy wife, he brags that he's above hitting women, then forcefully punches her in the stomach to somehow prove his point. Not that he's a total King Joffrey: Later, in a mood of generosity, he appoints her a lover (Sebastian De Souza) famous for his large but sterile organ.

But The Great doesn't quite make the case that it should be Catherine who succeeds him — not yet. McNamara is more charmed by his heroine's pluck than his audience might be, but he's also aware that able leadership needs more than noble intentions and technocratic ideals, which are all that moony Catherine comes to Russia with. Then there's her utter unfamiliarity with Russia itself — a country she only knows through its bratty king and his obsequious enablers.

A more complex show might have explored the delusions necessary to believe oneself the savior of a nation one's just arrived in. (The real-life Catherine lived in Russia for 17 years before seizing the throne from her husband, though she only suffered six months of his rule.) Instead, The Great is too busy celebrating her gumption.

Over the consistently entertaining 10-part season, The Great follows Catherine as she figures out who she can enlist as accomplices in her future coup. Her first allies are her lady-in-waiting Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former noblewoman demoted to servanthood, and the cerebral, forward-thinking bureaucrat Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), who's used to butting heads with the conservative palace priest (Adam Godley). Harder to budge are the loyalties of Peter's aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), his highest-ranking (and vodka-soaked) general (Douglas Hodge) and his mistress (Charity Wakefield) and her quietly suffering husband (Gwilym Lee).

None of the supporting characters approach the three-dimensionality that Catherine and Peter enjoy, but many do get deliciously catty lines, as when one of the queen's pink-wigged rivals tells her, "You are nothing but a tolerated womb." (They're also the ones who start that horse rumor.) Throughout, supporting characters feel more like puzzle pieces to be fitted together than human beings, but there's enough development to flesh out the methodical story arcs.

Eventually, even the shocks of courtly excess — The Great's raison d'être — make way for a more conventional tale of royal intrigue. The former are amusing but exhausting; the latter, disappointingly orthodox. Despite stellar performances by Fanning and Hoult, The Great, by sticking a pure-hearted heroine in a world where heroism seems impossible, never quite adds up to a coherent whole. As an acidic confection, it's a lemon tart topped with moose lips.

(Producer MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)

Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Gwilym Lee, Sacha Dhawan, Adam Godley, Belinda Bromilow, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge, Sebastian De Souza
Creator-showrunner: Tony McNamara
Premieres: Friday, May 15 (Hulu)