If Helen Mirren was the only choice to play the older, ruthless and legendarily libidinous Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, for HBO, how bold it is to give us Elle Fanning in a “How she got that way” series, “The Great,” for Hulu.
She’s been on the screen for a decade, is still only 22 and looks younger. And whatever her comic chops coming into the mini-series, she delivers the deadpan, the droll and and the withering put-downs with all the draw-blood style we’d expect of the empress who’d eventually depose her cruel fop of a husband, Peter III.
“”You’re not Great, are you?”
The former Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst might have felt the need to explain that to the Prussian born and raised Russian Czar. But even Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, wound up, over-the-top and farcically cruel) would get the “Peter the Great’s grandson isn’t all that” inference.
“The Great” compresses time and distorts history to stuff decades of educated, “enlightened” French-speaking Catherine’s too-early marriage, mistreatment by Peter and brutal experience in the Neanderthal Russian court she was hurled into. Her turn from sweet and naive to avenging Mother of all Russia must be preceded by a thousand injuries, insults and abject humiliations. Fanning suffers and schemes just well enough to suggest the not-to-be-trifled-with Czarina to come.
Hoult’s Peter is high-born low comedy personified — an impulsive vulgarian, heartless to the point of savagery, indulged like the despot he is.
“You looked taller in your portrait. Send her back and get me another one!”
It’s very like “The Tudors” in its cruelty, coarse language, vulgarity and sexuality, a bit of “Start the Revolution Without Me” in its royal randiness, funny fops and the like.
The contrast in the newlywed couple makes a grand running gag, her expectation that they’ll be “constant and caring all our lives,” his tactless, “She’s not an inbred, is she?”
The “our love is but an ember, a mere spark” idealism she brings to court may earn eyerolls from the cynically funny archbishop (Adam Godley) and snickers from us.
“I must blow on it until it bursts into passionate flame!”
But Peter’s idea of romance is rape, his notion of fidelity is to, well, keep it in the court, at least — the mistresses. A gift? A Russian bear, which he can just as monstrously take away. Her “literacy” is a failing to Peter’s circle.
“Women are for seeding, not reading!”
Catherine must make allies — the all-knowing maid Mariel (Phoebe Fox, seething and suffering), a demoted and humiliated former lady in waiting, young equally well-read men of court. She must try to escape. And failing that…
“How was your evening?”
“Avoided rape. Yours?”
“The Great” spares no expense in its costumes and period detail, and the leads make splendid foils, worthy foes. The series was conceived by Tony McNamara, who scripted the deliciously cruel and comically dark Oscar winner “The Favourite.” This should dazzle and delight.
But I was stunned at how quickly one wearies of the grating tone, the excess, brutal sexual encounters played for laughs. Once we’ve seen it, we get it. But it’s not like they could get right down to the nitty gritty of plotting (failed) escapes and then scheming up revenge.
They’ve got ten hours to fill, after all. That’s a common gripe of the Golden Age of the Limited Series. Once we “get it,” “Ozark,” “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Tales from the Loop,” “Mrs. America,” “Hollywood” just keep going.
Repetition is a pitfall, even in the shows that dazzle (“Mrs. America”). Promising premises (“Hollywood”) are pummeled into submission.
While overlap isn’t an issue in a show that is truly episodic, airing once a week to become “destination TV,” dumped out all at once so you can weekend or quarantine with it just exposes the flab and the weaknesses of the story telling style.
Rare is the series that holds our attention and puts us into, “Well, let’s stop up and watch one more episode” mode. Maintaining that page-turner curiosity is the goal.
After a sparkling start, and despite all-in commitments from the leads, “The Great” turns sour and never really recovers that greatness.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox.
Created by Tony McNamara. A Hulu series premiering May 15.
Running time: 10 episodes @1 hour each.