by Tony McNamara
The Great* An Occasionally True Story, is written and produced by Tony McNamara, who also wrote The Favourite.
It’s very easy to tell if you’ll like The Great. Did you like The Favourite?
Do you like gorgeous clothes?
Do you feel strongly that you would watch Nicholas Hoult do anything at all?
Do you enjoy very dry, dark humor and furious women who weaponize sarcasm?
If so, you will like The Great, and if not, well then, there are many other wonderful things streaming right now that do not involve a state dinner with decapitated heads as party decorations. The Great is funny, it includes amazing acting, it is alight with female rage, it features stunning clothes and scenery, and it’s often exciting, but it’s also filled with violence and cruelty so viewer beware.
The story is about Catherine the Great’s arrival in Russia and decision to overthrow her husband, Peter. As the title suggests, this is inspired by true events but certainly not confined by them, and it revels in anachronistic speech and inaccurate and unlikely events.
Catherine, played by Elle Fanning, is 19 when she is sent from her home in Prussia to marry Peter, played by Nicholaus Hoult. The marriage is a disaster as the progressive Catherine is horrified by the state of Russia in general and Court in particular. “I am married to an idiot!” she complains to her maid, Marial, who without batting an eyelash replies, “That has never happened to any woman before.”
After a period of wallowing in self-pity, Catherine decides that a good coup is in order. Most of the series involves her trying to organize this coup along with her allies Mariel and Orlov, a palace noble who shares Catherine’s love for learning. The plot is complicated by the ever shifting world of politics not to mention the ever shifting world of the heart as friendships and lovers and enemies and the general climate at court keep characters and viewers guessing as to what will happen next. Since the series has only the slightest relationship to history, glancing at Wikipedia is not actually helpful when it comes to making predictions about the show.
Viewers should know that this carries the following trigger warnings:
- Cruelty to children
- Cruelty to animals
- Desecration of bodies
- Rape (marital, in the sense of a duty that is disliked by both participants)
- Rape (drunken variety, narrowly averted)
- Casual discussion of cruelty especially towards serfs.
It’s a show in which two women, comparing their evenings, casually mention that they both avoided rape, shrug, and go on about their lives. The fact that their conversation struck me as hilarious is due to both the writing (SO DRY) and the comic timing of Phoebe Fox (Marial) and Elle Fanning (Catherine), who are both treasures we do not deserve.
Obviously this will not be popular among those who don’t have an extremely high tolerance for extremely black humor. However, if you can stomach the violence, the payoff is enormous. We have feminism, we have female rage, we have complex characters, we have many outstanding performances, and the clothes and sets alone make the series worth watching. Seeing the young Catherine come into her power is truly thrilling.
My one quibble is that I got very impatient with seeing Catherine feel sorry for herself (as do several other characters who point out that as a person living in Russia she could be a lot worse off than she is). I also got impatient with Catherine failing to see the obvious, which is that with Peter, flattery will get you everywhere. For Catherine to be naive, stubborn, and impulsive made sense. It did not make sense for her to be stupid. Once she gets the concept of pretending and manipulating down, she’s a champ, but it’s a weary wait to get to that point.
There is some romance in the movie, but it’s quite clear (to the viewer, if not to the characters involved) that this is not going to last. I loved that all the relationships in the movie, platonic and otherwise) are complex, including the one between Catherine and her lover, Leo, who is full of charm and resignation. While the society of men wrestles and drinks and fistfights in the halls of power, women are talking about hats and butterflies and oh, yes, whether or not they should secure the line of power by murdering a child. I would happily watch this movie just for Marial’s exasperation, or for Aunt Elizabeth, played by Belinda Bromilow, explaining to Catherine that she lives life by her own rules, and “It helps that they think I’m mad.” I also loved Charity Wakefield’s performance as Georgina, a complicated person in a complicated relationship whose jawline telegraphs “You will not cross me,” even when she’s being flirtatious.
This might be a love it or hate it series and honesty, given the cruelty, I thought I might hate it. I’m glad I took a chance on it as I fell into the “love it” camp. I mean, look at those clothes! The first season ends on a cliffhanger as many seasons of television do but it also resolves a crucial character arc, leaving me (paradoxically) both satisfied and anxiously awaiting Season Two, which I hope we get. However, if we don’t get a second season, I’ll still be gratified by having watched a woman learn to access and exercise her power.