It’s not easy to modernize a country and plan a coup. To go from violence, debauchery, and foul-mouths to enlightenment, science and art take a lot of conniving, manipulation, and work behind the scenes. Hulu’s new satirical dramedy is a fresh take on Catherine the Great of Russia’s rise to power in the mid 18th century. Created by Tony McNamara (writer of “The Favourite”) and loosely based in fact, this 10-episode series is a farcical romp through history, but it’s not for the light of heart or prudish.
“The Great“ has quite the modern feel to it (think Apple TV +’s “Dickinson”)–if you closed your eyes or took away the period set and costumes, this very well could be a modern-day drama filled with political intrigue, betrayal, sex, drugs, alcohol and lots of glass-breaking. There’s even Moscow Mules and bowling. Part inspirational story about the fight for progress, part tragic love story, and part historical fiction, “The Great” is all parts enjoyable to watch.
The story starts with a German 19-year-old Catherine (Elle Fanning) being betrothed to Emperor Peter of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine arrives at the palace full of hopes and dreams and wearing rose-colored glasses. She has grand, naive ideas about love and what Russia really is. Those idealistic dreams are popped like a pin in a balloon once she meets her new husband Peter and his clown court that surrounds him, giving him unearned praise and validation at every turn. The Russia that meets Catherine is depraved, backward and stuck in an unenlightened male chauvinistic society where “women are for breeding, not reading.” This is not what Catherine had imagined. Soon it is in her head that she can change Russia, thus changing the world–if she can get past the Church, the military, Peter’s cronies and Peter himself. Piece of cake.
Catherine then embarks upon a treacherous journey as an outsider to overthrow her husband–all while being female. Who can she trust? What is she willing to do for power? How far can she push without being found out? Is she willing to sacrifice her happiness for a better Russia? Along the way, Peter decides to throw an unexpected wrench into her plans in the form of Leo (Sebastian De Souza), a new lover thrust upon her to make her happy. It’s a story that can be played out in any century–the female fight for power and the quest for the answer to the age-old question–can you really have it all?
The writing and the cast do a brilliant job of highlighting the absurdity of the monarchy and the failings in continuing to do things as they’ve always been done, not disrupting the status quo. Hoult shines as the boyishly petulant brat Peter who’s only concern is doing what he wants when he wants. But beneath the shine and veneer of an Emperor who is to be feared for his recklessness, lies a young man who is extremely self-conscious and only striving to live up the legacy of his father while yearning to be loved. Nicholas Hoult is simultaneously charming and irritatingly frustrating with his immaturity. But he does have fleeting flashes of competence and tenderness that sometimes make you feel for his character.
Elle Fanning does a brilliant job of personifying the young romantic hell-bent on changing the world and inspiring hope in a nation that was all but written off as backwoods drunks. She is a perfect visualization of the gorgeously optimistic young idealist who’s ideals are put to the test. She is flawed and makes mistakes along the way but is ultimately the type of female figure that today’s young woman could stand to look up to. She’s a fighter and stands for what she believes in and doesn’t let adversity get in the way. She still believes in her fellow man and believes that everyone should be treated with dignity–male or female, the ruling class or surf. That fighting spirit is the same as any other female superhero character and deserves her own fan club.
The rest of the cast rounds out the court perfectly. With inspired casting that took a color-blind approach to the project, the supporting cast feels fresh and modern without being distracting. In most “historical” pieces (at least those that aren’t about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement), you would be hard-pressed to find characters of color, especially those who are not just thrown in the background as filler. The team behind this one gets the fact that “historical fiction” can look any way you want it to–it can be a reflection of an “ideal” society where everyone is represented.
Every character has their mission, quirks and character flaws and is vital to the success of the plot and the series itself. Supposed playboy Leo is tenderly and effortlessly played by Sebastian De Souza (“Medici,” “The Borgias,” “Skins”). He’s a beautiful blessing and a curse. Catherine’s maid Marial, confidant and right-hand woman, is brought to life by Phoebe Fox (“The Woman in Black”). She’s got her own mission to tend to as well, reversing her tragic fall from the Emperor’s graces. She also, at times, has torn allegiances making her a mercurial element in this plot. The same could be said for Gwilym Lee’s (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) Grigor–you don’t know whether to pity him or have disdain for him. Sacha Dhawan, Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, Louis Hynes, Abraham Popoola are tremendous and vital cogs in this revolutionary machine.
“The Great” also gets praise for its strong and complex female characters. On the surface, they seem just to be pretty faces, relegated to the sidelines living a life of frivolity and gossip. But as the story progresses, you come to see that they are much more than that. They are intelligent, strong, and really the ones pulling strings behind the scenes–from Catherine to Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) to Peter’s best friend’s wife and lover Georgina (Charity Wakefield). Everyone has ulterior motives, passions, and desires and is looking out for their own self-interest. They will do whatever it takes to maintain their place.
Filled with sexism, misogyny, brutality, class issues, power struggles, feminism, romance, violence, and schemes–what more could you want–“The Great’s” timing is perfect. This is a modern story set against a historical backdrop. It’s beautiful and romantic and depressing and tragic all at once. But the path to enlightenment has many bumps and winding paths along the way. In the end, “The Great” is a fun respite, inspiring and hopeful at a time when we need it the most.