Catherine the Great is a ruler whose reign is perfect to adapt for television. After all, Catherine was a German princess who didn’t even speak Russian when she came to the country. She had an incredible rise to power after a military coup forced her husband from the throne, leaving him to die in “mysterious circumstances.” Catherine then ruled Russia for 34 years, expanding its Empire and transforming Russia into a world power. This HBO production does not focus on Catherine’s rise to power, which makes sense considering recent Russian series “Ekaterina” has already depicted this in its three seasons. Instead, this four-part miniseries draws on the later years of Catherine’s reign, examining the hardships Catherine faced in the years after the coup that placed her on the throne.
It’s Helen Mirren’s performance as Catherine that carries the show. She’s utterly brilliant in the titular role, whether she’s insulting her son (“Why is my son so unattractive?”) or being asked how she would like to declare war (“In a very loud voice, and ring some bells!”). Helen Mirren is clearly having a blast playing Catherine. What I loved best about Mirren’s portrayal is how well-rounded she makes Catherine. Yes, the show highlights that Catherine was fun, lively and intelligent, but she was not a perfect heroine. Helen Mirren depicts Catherine’s pettiness, her coldness towards her son Paul (Joseph Quinn) and crucially, her vulnerability. Some historical adaptations attempt to place their subjects on a pedestal and excuse any controversial behavior, but happily, “Catherine the Great” shows the best and worst of this 18th century monarch.
A Romance That Misses the Mark
The dominant focus of the show is Catherine’s relationship with Grigory Potemkin (a charismatic Jason Clarke). The show presents Potemkin as the love of Catherine’s life, though it seems to think the way to achieve this is by the characters telling us this, rather than showing it. Mirren and Clarke do have chemistry, and once settled into their relationship the characters share obvious affection for one another. It’s clear why Catherine falls for Potemkin, with his sense of humor and devotion to her. However, I didn’t feel as invested in their relationship as the show wanted me to be. It’s a nice romance, but hardly the love affair of the century that the script so desperately tries to sell it as.
I do appreciate that the show stuck to a narrative it wanted to tell about Catherine’s reign in her relationship with Potemkin. It’s arguably easier to focus on this crucial relationship in Catherine’s life than to attempt to delve into the complexities of Russia’s military and foreign policy across the decades in only four hours. Narrowing the focus of the show should have made it easier to become invested in the emotional as well as the political areas of Catherine’s life. Yet I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Catherine the Great’s reign was many things, but dull was not one of them. By the time Catherine is fighting another war with Turkey and bickering with Potemkin again, the script feels repetitive. Vital events in Catherine’s reign did not grip me and left me looking on Wikipedia to see what I was missing. It’s a shame, because Catherine’s reign is hardly short of fascinating plot points.
A Fascinating Friendship
One relationship that sparked the most interest was the one between Catherine and her lady-in-waiting and confidant, Countess Praskovya Bruce. The role is superbly played by Gina McKee, with the two sharing an easy familiarity that really sells their friendship. A small scene of them gossiping in the gardens (featuring great lines such as “War, war, war. All I want to do is talk about sex. Or gardening.”) felt 10 times more fun and interesting to watch than Catherine and Potemkin arguing. It’s such a shame McKee isn’t featured more, as she only appears in scenes to remind the audience how in love Catherine and Potemkin are. There’s so much the show could have done with this character, especially considering Bruce was at court from when she was 15, and I would have loved more backstory on her friendship with Catherine and how she survived at court for so many years.
There’s a scene in episode four between Catherine and Countess Bruce which demonstrates the potentially more interesting journey we could have taken through Catherine’s reign. Bruce reminds Catherine that when she was young, “You were so full of hope and charity. Supported the arts and science; you showed the world what women can achieve.” Catherine responds that “when I was young, I dreamed of freedom, as people do when they’re young. I dreamed of breaking chains. But as you get older your choices narrow. So, what did I do instead? I gave us an empire. Which is something.”
This scene felt frustrating for so many reasons. For one, it calls to a fascinating plot point from the season premiere where Catherine gives a speech calling for the nobles to help abolish serfdom in Russia. The show presented this as an important moment for Catherine, yet this plot point is quickly discarded by a title card in the next episode, which tells the audience “Catherine’s war forces her to abandon slavery reforms and the serfs.” Therefore, when Catherine brings up that she had to narrow her choices in the last episode, I wish the show could have developed this further. How did Catherine feel abandoning her wishes for reform? How did her power narrow these wishes of freedom? Why did she end up enforcing laws that made life even harder for serfs? There’s some really fascinating material here to explore Catherine’s character that the show only makes a half-hearted attempt to tell.
The Royal Touch
While the script disappoints, visually, the show excels. The sets are suitably lavish, (the show filmed in actual Russian palaces though mainly in Lithuania) and you get a real sense of the splendor that marked Catherine’s court, as well as the natural and vast beauty of the Russian landscape. Everything is stunning to look at, whether it’s a battlefield or the gardens of a palace. Catherine’s costumes are particularly wonderful, with costume designer Maja Meschede having done an amazing job fitting Catherine with outfits which are not just suitably regal but add to Mirren’s performance.
While I’m disappointed overall with the show, I have to acknowledge how difficult it is to adapt a lesser-known period of history for television. It’s difficult to drop viewers in the middle of 18th century Russia and expect them to understand everything, and the show generally handles its (sometimes clunky) exposition well, and more naturally than other historical adaptations I’ve watched. When Catherine’s son destroys her legacy after her death, it’s genuinely affecting. The fractured relationship between the pair felt believable, and while it’s infuriating to see Paul tarnish his mother’s work and memory, you understand why. The show successfully highlights how easy it is for a queen’s legacy to be manipulated during and after her life.
With a winning performance by Mirren, “Catherine the Great” just about achieves what any historical adaptation should do, getting the viewer invested in the subject they’ve adapted. Do I want to know more about Catherine’s reign? Absolutely. Have I now ordered a biography of her to read? Yes. Considering the truly painful historical adaptations I’ve watched, this show makes a sincere effort to tell an engaging and simple narrative of Catherine’s reign. Unfortunately, this attempt does not live up to the legacy of its namesake.