Created by Tony McNamara, one of the writers of The Favourite, The Great is a quirky, off-kilter romp, that wisely takes liberties with historical fact
Starring Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, Belinda Bromilow, Richard Pyros, Bayo Gbadamosi, and Sebastian de Souza
It’s practically impossible to talk about The Great without reflecting upon its spiritual predecessor The Favourite. Opening to rave reviews for its anachronistic and intelligently political portrayal of the relationships between Queen Anne and the members of her court, The Favourite was undeniably quirky in its presentation. The Great maintains a lot of the personality of The Favourite, presenting Catherine the Great’s (Elle Fanning) coming of age and rise to power against the strange, unexpected and absurd actions of her new husband Emperor Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult).
The Great credits itself as “an occasionally true story”; a description which gives it a tremendous amount of creative freedom. While Peter himself wasn’t actually Emperor by the time that Catherine and he married, and Russia was instead ruled by the devilishly unhinged “Aunt Elizabeth” (Belinda Bromilow), liberating the story from the constraints of actual history allows McNamara to develop Catherine more seamlessly without it appearing as a history lesson. He has taken some meaningful relationships from the true history and used this to craft a more satisfying and entertaining fiction, which is a bold move, and injects the entire show with a delectable aura of fun and manic energy.
The Great details the story of Catherine, as an impressionable young woman who harbours deeply romantic notions of life, of love and of humanity, who is brought to Russia in order to marry the Emperor Peter III, who isn’t even vaguely like what she had imagined. She has a massive appreciation for the modern practices of France and longs to bring meaningful reform to Russia and change it for the better, while Peter primarily concerns himself with flights of fancy, manic hedonism, getting drunk, having sex wherever he wants and murdering anybody who dares disagree with him. Ultimately, this impulsively pushes Catherine towards planning a coup against Peter to make herself the Empress, along with her bumbling, unassuming sidekick Orlo (Sacha Dhawan).
A lot of the crazed, slightly hysterical and farcical energy of the show comes from the unpredictability of Nicholas Hoult’s Peter III. Hoult brings an immature, petulant absurdity to the role, showing the Emperor as a strange sort of dreadfully insecure, impulsive and demanding adult toddler, who careens wildly from vice to vice and thrives on others’ affirmations, while seeing no reason to actually earn anybody’s attention or affection, other than the pure nature of his existence.
In contrast, Elle Fanning is an utterly entrancing lead. She deftly handles the change in Catherine as she sheds her idealism, almost moving her through the stages of grief as she comes to terms with her new state of existence. She gives Catherine a steely grit and a massive compassion, all while being able to give acerbic, brittle barbs with a deadpan expression. Catherine is the most similar character here to any of the members of the audience, and Fanning continually makes her an engaging watch.
Though The Great is typified by its more surreal, bizarre happenings, this is contrasted uncomfortably with the more frightening, gory and sinister, which often feels a strange tonal shift. For example, we ricochet from Peter’s typical nonsense to him cruelly shooting Catherine’s bear, or trying to drown her, or characters coming in drenched in blood, or servants being viciously flogged. There’s a lot of unpleasant imagery which suddenly takes away from the humour, such as a rather squeamish section in which everybody at the Emperor’s dining table is forced to push eyeballs out of severed heads. It’s where Peter’s demeanour as a ruthless ruler suddenly careens into actual insanity, and these moments sometimes feel like they go a little far, perhaps striking a little too hard in contrast to the gleeful, absurd energy of the rest of the show.
The Great ultimately details the coming of age of Catherine, about her eagerness to improve her surroundings in contrast to those who hold power but who simply have no interest in using it for betterment, and instead consign themselves to mundane frivolity. It’s a statement about those who wield power without purpose, and those who have purpose without power, and how ultimately both are equally unpleasant prisons, even though one certainly has more elegant surroundings.
Just like The Favourite, it makes fun out of large political ideas, such as the relative merits of incremental progress compared to more radical change, as represented by Catherine’s impulsive, assured coup compared to Orlo’s more reserved notions of altering Russia from within.
Even though everybody ultimately knows this story will end with Catherine sitting on the throne, with Nicholas Hoult being so delightful and devilish fun in the role of Peter III, hopefully that doesn’t happen too soon.
The Great is airing now on Channel 4, on Sundays at 9pm. It is also available to watch on 4OD.