The Great presents a tone, a sound of energetic strings, and a familiar look. As the events of the series unfold, the image of Emma Stone repeating the word “fuck” as she walks the halls of Hatfield House emerges. The location is the same, but also a writer. Tony McNamara’s pilot script for The Great was what made Yorgos Lanthimos reach out to him to co-write The Favourite. Being a precursor to the latter, the language and tone is very much the same. The Favourite was described by many as a historical period piece for people who dislike historical period pieces, and the same could be said for Hulu’s latest original series. “I’m interested in how you change something to make it more contemporary and to speak to an audience now, and to have more fun, I guess,” McNamara says. The Great’s take on the early years of Catherine the Great – like The Favourite’s of Queen Anne’s later years – leans more heavily on entertainment than historical accuracy. It’s satirical, modernized in language, comportment, and humor. The rise of the longest-reigning female ruler of Russia is full of lavish sets with production design by Francesca Di Mottola and Kave Quinn, beautiful costumes by Emma Fryer and Holly Waddington, with added chaos, foolishness, weird parties with weird dancing, and where no one is prim and proper but vulgar. The Great is another example of why character and tone taking importance above historical accuracy makes for great storytelling.
The story of a young German girl sent off to marry the emperor of Russia is explored by McNamara the same way as the story of Anne, Sarah, and Abigail is: A character study about how the dilemmas faced by Catherine feels contemporary, vital, and not something that just happened long ago. For much of the early phase of their arranged marriage, Catherine feels and is treated as a foolish princess with a naive view of love, marriage, sex, and royalty. Upon first meeting the emperor, Peter, Catherine has three goals. The first is to love Peter, but he is no gentleman. Nicholas Hoult plays the emperor as an erratic prick. Dumb, self-absorbed, and a cruel emperor who rules through insult and is excited by violence. Catherine’s second goal is to make Peter love her, but like most women of the time, she’s only seen by him as an object to bear seed and not something to be loved (not to mention the Freudian relationship he’s holding onto with his dead mother). Her final goal is to find culture and education, but she’s married to a man who rejects modernity, everything progressive. Catherine’s western ideals envision a country that flourishes in education and art with joyful people with full stomachs and heads full of ideas. But Peter stands against everything she believes in and she grows to hate him. The Great’s take on the monarch shows an intelligent woman in a court surrounded by illiterate ladies more interested in hats, drunken lords with adversarial ideals, and a husband who thought of nothing but war, drink, sex, and to make his palace one big party. (Would have come as no surprise if anyone shouted, “Let them eat cake!”)
Elle Fanning (who also serves as an executive producer) portrays the great ruler at a time of much dissatisfaction and unhappiness. She wishes to rule Russia differently, create a better country than one under Peter’s rule, but she has no voice. Luckily, she has a friend in her servant, Marial; once a lady of the court whose family was reduced to serfdom (Peter’s doing of course). As Marial, Phoebe Fox is one of the show’s most entertaining players despite being incredibly calm and cool. While most of the cast play ostentatious characters who throw glasses of vodka and shout “Huzzah!” repeatedly, Fox’s matter of fact humor delivered with a straight face gets a laugh every time and is worthy of an Emmy. It’s Marial who, in a moment when Catherine contemplates suicide, presents her with another solution: a coup to overthrow Peter. Russia must be saved, as Catherine says, so she agrees and most of The Great’s first season is spent plotting that coup. Herself, and other partners, attempt to sway the church, the regions, the military, and the court in her favor as she builds a philosophical backbone that the Russian people can get behind. This is where Fanning gets to excel as she must be cunning and mischievous, all with a coy smile. There are sacrifices made, risks taken, murder, and betrayal that creates the start of a love story between Catherine the Great and a nation.
The latest trend of period pieces moving away from a straightforward historical take into a genre with more liberty made many question its purpose and value. Is a narrative promoted as an “occasionally true story” one worth telling if it ignores history? Or, as The Guardian put it, do historical movies have to be accurate? Tony McNamara made the kind of period piece someone like him, who has no interest in them, would want to watch. Something, as he says, that’s “really funny, contemporary and dark,” but also, “[feels] fast and furious.” While it’s all three of the former in its tackling of gender politics, male hubris, and female humility, for the latter, while frequent in drama and sharp dialogue, its 10-hour length begins to drag. Catherine and Peter’s game of chess could have been much shorter, with Catherine’s declaration of checkmate having the same impact.
Some stories do need a caring hand of accuracy; however, in the case of Catherine the Great, she’s a subject who has been explored many times before in different forms of media. HBO released a miniseries in 2019 entitled Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren as a much more mature monarch towards the end of her reign in comparison to the young and naive Catherine we meet in The Great. This new take on her story is anachronistic, no Russian accent to be found, the costumes of a different time and place, there’s people of color in court, and interracial marriage. Information may be left to the audience to research themselves, and the timeline of events may not match, but standing side by side, as one relies more on biographical works of its subject, the other has room for outrageousness. Room to say “cuntstruck” if it so chooses – and it does – as the firing of a gun leads Russia into its Golden Age and hopefully another season.
Hulu will drop all 10 episodes of The Great on May 15.
Sara Clements has been a freelance film/TV writer since 2017. She’s from Canada and holds a degree in journalism. She has written for both print and online and is an editor for Next Best Picture. She likes to pressure everyone into watching Paddington. You can find her on Twitter at @mildredsfierce