New historical comedy The Great, streaming on Stan, stars Elle Fanning cast as Catherine the Great. From the co-writer of The Favourite, it’s every bit as good as you’d expect, writes Steve Newall.
“You’re perfect. I need an empress who’s from aristocracy, but not from a family that is powerful, or a player. Your family, apparently, are fucked.”
Ah, sweet romance. Isn’t this how every young woman dreams of being regarded by her betrothed? That’s what Catherine (Elle Fanning) has to hear in the opening minutes of The Great, soon after she’s shipped off to Russia in the 18th Century for an arranged marriage to Peter, the Russian Emperor. Adding insult to injury, Peter (Nicholas Hoult) departs their brief introduction with this classy exit: “I have to get back to my whores… whores-es… horses. Going riding.”
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Thus begins a farcical comedy-drama that revels in the bacchanalian chaos of the Russian court, indulges in plenty of lewd language and sumptuous dress-ups, and is blessed with a fantastic cast and razor-sharp script as it entertains, even as it takes historical liberties.
So far, so The Favourite, you may be thinking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Tony McNamara wields the pen here, after being nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the 2018 period comedy, and continues his knack for injecting black humour into a historical setting. Yes, we see the absurdities and dreary realities of court life through the eyes of a somewhat outsider (Fanning here, Emma Stone in The Favourite), The Great shares a familiar historic location with Yorgos Lanthimos’s film, and Nicholas Hoult follows up his hilarious supporting role with an even better starring turn here. But while there are some similarities, The Great proves a different beast, and not just by doing away with Lanthimos’s fish-eye lens.
While the dynamics of court and jostling for influence are still present, Peter’s Russia is a very different place to the 18th Century England presided over by The Favourite’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman in what rightly felt like her inevitably Oscar-winning role). His country is also at war, against Sweden, a conflict started by Peter for no reason other than to emulate his father, while he busies himself with more important matters—sex, booze, buffoonery.
Hoult is brilliant at playing comically dim and with no scruples, whose every whim is indulged, which makes him phenomenally dangerous behind his foolish facade. It’s a masterful performance which allows him to display wonderfully numbskull comic timing while also being turbulent and terrifying. And just when it might seem he’s all caricature, Hoult’s able to reveal nuance hinting at depth, if not overly well-exercised empathy or intelligence.
The show’s not called The Great because he’s such a phenomenal ruler, though. If you haven’t twigged yet, it’s the suffix Catherine acquired in Russian history IRL. As such, Fanning’s character is the real focus here, an optimistic young woman, well-read, brimming with ideas, hopes and dreams—if not experience. That’s illustrated in the opening moments of the series as she muses to another about what her impending departure to Russia, and her marriage, may bring.
It’s confirmed when Catherine, reeling from meeting Peter and marrying him nearly immediately, is asked by her newly appointed servant Marial (Phoebe Fox) if she knows what is about to happen in their marital bed. Her poetic, virginal concept of sex is elaborately expressed—and not met by one iota when Peter makes his way to her shortly thereafter. “It was… brief,” Catherine recounts to Marial, when quizzed on whether her expectations were met. “Brief is often a relief” is Marial’s reply.
Through doses of reality, disappointment, and seeing examples of Peter’s callousness and cruelty first-hand, in just the space of the first episode Catherine abandons many of her illusions. She’s abetted by Marial, who lacks the humility and tact of a servant in favour of strong self-possession and an often wicked wit. As she explains to Catherine, that’s because she, until recently, was a lady of the court—one of the women Catherine is encouraged to emulate, with their talk of hats, tittering over affairs, and rolling balls on the lawn. “My father fucked with the emperor and so he made us all servants,” Marial explains. “It’s uncharacteristically clever of him. It serves as a standing warning to all of the court, you could wake up tomorrow shovelling shit.”
To navigate her way through her new life with some semblance of her self-respect intact, Catherine will need to forge alliances and find solace and wisdom where she can. “Marriage is a struggle on all levels” the cuckolded husband of Peter’s lover, who’s been sprawled in an armchair while the emperor had his way with his wife, tells her. Maybe not the best example of a great lesson, that one, and for the viewer perhaps The Great won’t help you pass any history exams, either.
But there’s plenty to hold your attention with its schemes and machinations, comedy of the black and bawdy varieties, crackingly witty script, and a stunning cast led by two genuine stars. Fanning brings the drama, earning our empathy as the show’s hero with a winning blend of naivety and cunning, while Hoult has an ever-present energy, and incredibly guileless comic ability. They’re surrounded by a great supporting cast—the aforementioned Phoebe Fox is a captivating shit-stirrer, even as her screen father shovels it; a comically Machiavellian archbishop (Adam Godley) steals scenes; and a hapless intellectual (Sacha Dhawan) tries, and generally fails, to temper Peter’s worst impulses, like a Trump adviser but with more literal pratfall.
It’s a show that very much lives up to its title. I can’t wait to see more.