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THE GREAT premieres on HBO Nordic May 16. The first six episodes were screened for review.
Take one part of Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE, a handful of IN THE LOOP, and a smattering of THE FAVORITE, and you have a perfectly serviceable recipe for Tony McNamara’s new royal sendup, THE GREAT. Starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in the leads, it’s a bitingly funny satire that’s wholly uncertain of what it actually wants to satirize.
Extremely loosely based on the life of Tsarina Catherine the Great, the ten part mini-series follows the titular heroine as she goes from bright eyed naivete to Westerosian plotting for the good of the country. The series is carried by an effortlessly magnetic Elle Fanning, who appears in nearly every single scene of the talky marathon. Her presence is a powerhouse, easily lighting up even the most mundane dialogue and deliciously delivering zingers as naturally as breathing. It’s a star making turn for the already highly praised actress, one that will hopefully propel her into the stature she deserves.
Sold into marriage by a philandering father, Catherine is thrust into the heart of Russian decadence as ruled by the child emperor Peter. Nicholas Hoult, previously lending his charisma to Beast in the X-MEN movies, is stellar as a supremely arrogant and vicious manchild quickly leading the vast empire into ruin with worthless wars and philandering. Hoult prances about the place like a nightmare from the depths of Reddit, nonchalantly abusing people left and right while loudly complaining about how people don’t love him. It’s a terrifically hateable performance, one that the talented actor clearly relishes playing.
Catherine quickly finds a confidant and friend in Marial, played by the dazzling Phoebe Fox. A former lady of the court, Marial finds herself playing servant after her lecherous father gets on the bad side of Peter’s favor. Fox is the quintessential comedian, delivering deadpan quips aplomb from episode to episode, very nearly stealing the show from under her co-stars. Her character’s plot line isn’t the meatiest, so it’s quite the miracle how Fox transcends the shallow material into a showcase of raw talent.
The same can be said for the rest of the supporting cast. Splendid character actors like Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, Sacha Dhawan, and Gwilym Lee are all nothing short of wonderful in their respective parts; but they’re given precious little to do over the course of the ten episode series. It’s Dhawan especially who gets the short end of the stick here. His role as the political machinator Orlo — think Varys crossed with Captain Darling — is rife with potential, but during the first six episodes he gets very little to do but whimper and react. Adam Godley is delightfully smarmy as the head of the church, keenly aware of the make believe he utilizes to wield his power. He’s buried under a bird’s nest of a beard, so much of his acting is done with wild-eyed expressionism. These double takes, pratfalls, and eyerolls are the bread and butter of the series; none delivered as exquisitely than those from Godley and Fox.
Yet despite the stellar cast, the series lacks focus. It takes potshots at Russian opulence, politics, and toxic masculinity; all at once in some cases. Calling it historical would be a misnomer as well since THE GREAT is filled with anachronisms and dialog that sees it flirting more with Terry Gilliam-esque flights of fantasy. These intentional nudges towards the present day leave the setting as a mystery to begin with, as history is rife with stories about incapable men leading countries into ruin in just about any country. And since the series doesn’t utilize the real life epicness of Catherine’s reign, much of the oomph that the first few episodes pack is lost in a cycle of repetition. Most episodes follow the same pattern; Peter acts boorish, rape is tossed about as a punchline, Catherine plots his demise, and there’s at least one party. It could be argued that since we’re witnessing everything from Catherine’s point of view that the exhausting nature is intended, but the point could certainly be made more efficiently. There is a great episode dealing with the inherently ridiculous notion of selecting God’s emissary on Earth to lead the church as Patriarch, but the series seems to pull its punches just as it aims for a haymaker.
These missteps are doubly frustrating because the series is very eloquent when it wants to be; especially when it sets the young adult novel antics on the backburner. Early in the season Catherine is introduced to both the social games of the court as well as a lover put in place by Peter to make her “less morose”. Both plotlines have their history deep in reality, but they’re treated by the series as gossipy SEX AND THE CITY castoffs and Harlequin romance novels. Especially the story between Catherine and Leo is interminable, despite the noble efforts from both Fanning and Sebastian De Souza.
That said, there is plenty to like and even love in THE GREAT. At it’s snappiest the dialog is a joy to listen to, and the cast is uniformly superb in delivering the witty banter. Fox and Fanning have an irresistible chemistry together and their scheming carries the series over its more lackluster moments. It’s just that with a time period as rich as this, and with a cast this good, it seems like an awful waste to dilly dally with the storytelling. When focused, the series hits home runs again and again. But as it loses attention, the plot gets muddied and dull, leaving the series at the dreaded halfway point its lead so desperately fears.
Good, but not great.