HBO and Sky have had a thing for Russia in 2019, first with the Emmy-winning Chernobyl and now with their latest, Catherine the Great. The four-part miniseries is the kind of historical epic that would have been a surefire Oscar contender way back when, but now that Hollywood no longer really makes such films, the duty of fulfilling audiences’ historical costume-drama needs has fallen on the likes of premium cable and streaming services. Notably, Home Box Office and Sky, both of which are more than up to the task.
Written by author and playwright Nigel Williams and directed Philip Martin, Catherine the Great is a similar brand of well-calibrated, sweeping historical epic that has served Netflix so well with The Crown. Unsurprisingly, Martin is one of the directors of the detail-oriented and emotionally intimate series fictionalizing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, meaning he's operating well within his creative wheelhouse here. To that end, Williams and Martin have constructed a story of the empress of Russia as a potent blend of — what else? — love and war. Though the approach may be conventional on the surface, the results are an intriguing blend of romance, politics, conspiracy, and plenty of bloodshed, all in the name of Mother Russia.
Mirren offers a searing performance as expected, playing Catherine as willful, calculating, and articulate, but also prone to bouts of youthful infatuation, mainly with the alluring soldier Grigory Potemkin, played by Jason Clarke in one of his best performances. Together, the two form an alluring pair of nonconformists who ruffle the feathers of the Russian establishment, particularly the Orlov brothers, Gregory (Richard Roxburgh) and Alexi (Kevin McNally), who aided Catherine in supplanting (and murdering) her husband and expect to be well compensated with positions in her government for their efforts. This is in addition to her seditious son, Prince Paul (Joseph Quinn), who resents his mother and feels entitled to her power, thanks in part to the scheming of Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear).
Catherine is well aware how tenuous her position as empress really is, and just how many men are waiting in the wings, ready to grab power from her by any means necessary. “What lies they tell about women in power,” she says to Potemkin as their simmering romance turns into a rolling boil in episode 2. She is, of course, referring to the rumors and conjecture spun by various members of her own household and trusted advisers, all in an effort to discredit the woman ruling Russia in the late 18th century, presumably to make way for a man to take her place. But try as they might, no one seems capable of deposing the empress, nor of preventing her romance with Potemkin from becoming another source of her considerable power.
The ebb and flow of power is at the heart of what the miniseries hopes to accomplish, and the script is more than willing to remind audiences of that fact at every turn. That Williams aims to repeatedly hit that particular nail on the head is to the series’ advantage, however, as it in effect becomes a mooring line preventing each hour from drifting and lingering in the considerable waters of Catherine and Grigory’s utterly charming love affair.
Though it bares all the hallmarks of a classic historical epic, Catherine the Great is also prone to wild shifts in tone. The series is anything but stodgy, in fact it embraces an appealing playfulness that is at times cheeky and downright lewd. In one instance, an evening at the opera turns into a lascivious competition between Catherine and Grigory, as they attempt to make one another envious of their sexual conquests with other people. Martin and Williams skirt the lines of good taste with a debauched interplay that succeeds in reinforcing the as-yet-unrequited affection Catherine and Grigory have for the other. The brazen unseemliness of it all is enhanced by the willful participation of Countess Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee), who facilitates the flirtation while also gratifying her own personal needs.
Another series would’ve fashioned a torrid love triangle from the characters on hand, but Catherine the Great instead opts to use the likes of Bruce and Orlov to amplify the connection of its two leads. As such, Mirren and Clarke are free to channel their energies into more convincing expressions of their respective characters’ power. Similarly, Williams and Martin are afforded the opportunity to take a less conventional route in the series’ journey through the tsarina’s decades-long reign, balancing emotional intimacy with moments of grand spectacle that are expected from a miniseries such as this.
Catherine the Great is not just another showcase of Mirren’s considerable talents; it’s also a celebration of a kind of passionate, ornate filmmaking that’s largely passed from favor among big Hollywood studios and theatergoers alike. That’s just as well, as the four-hour miniseries is better suited to documenting the highs and lows of Catherine’s rule, and the more fascinating personal relationships that were produced as a result.
Catherine the Great premieres Monday, October 21 @10pm on HBO.