The Great promises to be a comedy loosely based on the life of Catherine the Great. When they say loosely, they mean it. Within the first 15 minutes, Catherine is married to Emperor Peter III of Russia (in reality – they married in 1745 during the reign of his aunt Empress Elizabeth of Russia). Elizabeth is still present, though as some forgotten aunt who worships her sister Anna – Peter’s mother – and strangely… butterflies. Anna was never Empress as portrayed in The Great, but she was Duchess Consort of Holstein-Gottorp – and died shortly after giving birth to Peter. Bizarrely, her body is on display for the entire court to see and in one particular episode is even used for necrophilia. Are you keeping up? The first episode ends with Catherine’s maid prophetically telling her that if there is no heir, “it” goes to the Empress. Tragically, the errors keep piling up to the point where it’s basically all fiction and has nothing to do with the actual Catherine the Great. Just throw in a made-up Empress and Emperor, it all comes out the same.
So forget everything you know about Catherine the Great and just enjoy this for what it is – a comedy in corsets. The ladies of the court treat Catherine with absolute disdain and are always dressed over the top, with Catherine herself appearing in rather bland and plain colours. She even has the door slammed in her face by a so-called lady. Her servant Marial – she apparently only has one – is a petulant child who also treats her like garbage but is occasionally on her side.
Catherine desperately tries to bring some enlightenment to the Russian court with Peter bringing in the comedic hook. She convinces him to bring scientists to court – he resorts to throwing Marial’s dog off the balcony with a parachute on its back. The printing press is introduced, but both are horrified to find themselves the subject of mocking pamphlets. She then tries to introduce variolation (the forerunner of vaccination) after one of her servants is quarantined in a wardrobe with smallpox. Meanwhile, they occasionally have intercourse or “heir-making” as it is later called with all their clothes on as Catherine’s lover mopes about.
By episode 8, we’re introduced to King Hugo and Queen Agnes of Sweden, as if we needed more fake characters to tell us what a complete fiction this is. We’ve also returned to Catherine’s plotting to stage a coup as an earlier attempt was abandoned when Peter miraculously recovered from being poisoned with arsenic. Also, we’ve completely forgotten about Catherine’s attempts to bring enlightenment. When she suddenly finds herself pregnant by the last episode, her final act begins, and she takes a class in how to become a murderer. Catherine also finally finds the one bright pink dress she owns.
Naturally, the whole plan (if there ever was a solid plan…) goes awry when Marial betrays her, Catherine’s lover is captured, and Catherine suddenly finds herself with a knife to her throat. Throw in a random Voltaire, and the party is complete. In the end, we get there as Catherine sacrifices her lover for the good of Russia with a single tear rolling down her face.
Is there anything to like? Sure, I liked Elle Fanning’s portrayal of a naive Princess thrust into the dangers of the bizarre Russian court but I’d rather they would have just stayed away from the Catherine the Great referencing at all. It serves absolutely no purpose here.