For those who shudder at historical inaccuracies in biopics, stay far away from Hulu’s “The Great.” The show does not even pretend to care about historical accuracy, opening each episode with the caveat, “an occasionally true story.”
The show loosely tells the story of the early days of Catherine the Great’s (Elle Fanning) marriage to Emperor Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) as she plots a coup to kill her incompetent and cruel husband to take the throne herself.
The series was created by Tony McNamara, the screenwriter of 2018 film “The Favourite,” which explored the court of Queen Anne with anachronisms, vulgarity, and a modern sensibility applied to historical court life. The influence is clearly shown in “The Great,” which is very different from other films and series set in this period.
It’s rare to find a costume drama that has a threesome within the first 20 minutes. In fact, few period pieces reach the level of crassness attained by “The Great.” Between the swearing, crude sexual references, and purposely untitilating sex scenes, this is not a show to watch with your parents. Further, for anyone familiar with the equestrian rumors about the queen, they are certainly addressed unambiguously.
“The Great” definitely does not fit into the mold of nice PG films that show a romanticized view of the past, serious dramas that explore history and the trials of major figures, or the sexy soap operas focused on the personal lives and affairs of the royal court.
This would be exciting, if the series were any good. The show thinks it’s subversive and daring with its humor, but the only shock is how relentlessly dull it is, regardless of themes and imagery. There’s a great story held up by interesting albeit variable performances, but the script cuts any enjoyment off at the knees. The writers appear to believe that our collective senses of humor can be shocked by crude humor and bad language.
It’s such a shame, because when the series wants to, it can be outrageously funny. There are several spectacular jokes established through Catherine’s misunderstanding of circumstances, which are paid off when everything fails spectacularly. I wish there were more of this throughout the series, as the writers were masterful in establishing expectations only to subvert them for a laugh. Unfortunately, the funniest parts of the show were few and far between.
The writers don’t trust their audience and actors to handle the more mature and intelligent jokes, opting instead to rest on lazy, crude humor whose only punchline is its attempt to appear transgressive. But they even misunderstand what is shocking. Compared to other offerings on the pop culture market, the jokes feel stale, as everything has been done before and done better.
Despite a few weak links, the cast and characters are at least enjoyable and interesting. The eponymous Catherine is in a different series than those around her. Elle Fanning plays the young queen with a wide-eyed naïveté that is thoroughly out of sync with the world around her.
The series is Fanning’s first comedic role, which does show somewhat. However, any awkwardness on her part is easily compensated by her dramatic talent. Catherine’s role as a fish-out-of-water actually suits her performance, allowing her to play the role within her more traditional comfort zone, which supplements many of the better punch lines.
Her husband, Peter, is a scoundrel through and through. A completely ineffectual leader and incompetent husband, he spends his days drunkenly goofing off with his advisors, threatening anyone who upsets his fragile worldview, and sleeping with his best friend’s wife. The over-entitled monarch with crippling mommy issues and an adoration for excess would not feel out of place in the wildest of fraternities. His group of advisors and friends are more akin to a frat than a governing body.
Nicholas Hoult plays Peter with a puppy dog earnestness that somehow makes the thoroughly unredeemable king shockingly likable. There is no doubt that Peter is an awful person, but Hoult has this air that imbues any character he portrays with such life that it is impossible not to be somewhat charmed by him, from the sadistic Tony Stonem in “Skins” to the foppish schemer Robert Harley in “The Favourite.” Hoult is easily one of the most underrated actors working today, with excellent comedic timing and strong dramatic chops, and his Peter easily steals the series.
Hoult is the best part of the series. He balances the absurd and crude material with a shocking humanity, which walks the fine line between being fun and likable but never sympathetic. He also appears to know better than anyone else how to bring life and humor into his scenes. It will be to the detriment of the show that, as history marches on in season two, he will likely have a much smaller role as Catherine builds her empire, eventually leaving the show for good. I certainly will be less interested in the post-Peter series.
Sacha Dewan (“The History Boys”) and Sebastian de Souza (“Skins”) likewise are fun and likable as Catherine’s allies, an intellectual lord and dimwitted preassigned lover respectively. Gwyllim Lee (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) handles the many facets of Peter’s tormented best friend, who must sit by while his king has a public affair with his wife.
However, a few central figures are grating, detracting from the show due to their importance. Phoebe Fox (“The Hollow Crown”) plays Catherine’s attendant and confidant, Mariel, an embittered noblewoman turned servant with a fierce edge. Between the writing and Fox’s performance, Mariel is far less the fun and engaging character she is supposed to be.
Instead, her anger renders her surprisingly one-note and banal, especially since she is meant to be a more likable and righteous character. It does not help her likability that Mariel is often used as a conduit for anachronistic and annoyingly on-the-nose feminist commentary.
Likewise, Belinda Bromilow (Doctor Doctor) plays Peter’s aunt, Elizabeth, as an out-of-it and hypersexual nut. This portrayal is a mischaracterization of a bright and benevolent woman who was empress of Russia, and to this day is a deeply respected and beloved figure of Russian history. It would have been far more interesting to have Aunt Elizabeth shown in a closer light to her historical counterpart, as she wholly deserves a more accurate cinematic portrayal.
The ahistorical take is in direct assault on a rather interesting and complicated historical period. Rather than look into the complex and interesting period explored, McNamara instead paints Russia as a primitive culture, wholly meriting mockery. The reductive take on both Russia and Peter belies a far more interesting tale. There’s nothing wrong with taking liberties to translate history to screen, but it should only be done to make the story more interesting, not less.
The show is not worth the 10 hours it takes from your life. Hoult’s performance gets close, but the show’s frustrating banality kills any goodwill or momentum established by the legitimately good elements.