Catherine the Great

Let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story.

SKY Atlantic / HBO miniseries Catherine the Great is sometimes as liberal with history as the Russian Empress’ social agenda.

Is it better to have British accents or feigned Russkie accents in tales like Chernobyl & Catherine the Great? I can’t give a definitive answer. Is it better to have 74yo Helen Mirren in the lead role than an actress the same age as 32yo Catherine when she overthrew Peter III for the throne in 1762?

Director Phillip Martin’s (Prime Suspect, The Crown) 4 part adaptation was filmed in Lithuania and looks absolutely smashing. The locations, resplendent in gold trimmings and Baroque architecture is to die for. They are matched every step of the way by glorious costumes that deserve an Emmy in their own right. Heck, you could probably turn down the sound and be spellbound by this.

But then you’d miss Mirren.

In her trademark commanding style she waltzes through scenes as the German-born Empress who has come to rule Russia. But the duplicitous are never far from the door, all wanting their own slice of power.

They include Russian statesman Alexei Orlov (Kevin McNally) and his brother Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), who is a bedmate of her majesty when he isn’t plotting his next move. There’s her own son Tsarevich Paul (Joseph Quinn -who frankly looks more like a grandson), who resents having a female ruler and wants his inherited throne.

They are contrasted by military commander Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) who is presented as Catherine’s true love in the drama’s early unresolved sexual tension.

“She eats men alive. You know that,” he is warned.

Attempts to instil social change, such as abolishing slavery, are distracted by any number of wars, opera, balls and royal administration. Catherine only has Countess Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee) to confide in, in scenes akin to very mannered powder room gossip.

Mirren’s wicked attributes notwithstanding, the first episode is sluggish but things pick up by the second episode when Catherine is forced to confront her feelings for Potemkin. Overall, it’s not quite a match for BBC’s War & Peace (2016) and I fear there are all kinds of shortcuts with the facts and dates in order to elicit the most drama.

But if one can let these go then there’s still a visual feast and Mirren, also an executive producer, in fine form to entertain.

Catherine the Great double episode premieres 7:30pm Sunday November 3 on FOX Showcase.


  1. Subtitles always lose the subtlety of language and accent-and Russian nobles spoke French as the court language-the Royal family was so intermarried with the other houses of Europe that they weren’t particularly ‘Russian’ in any case-by Tsar Nicholas II, he was 128th part native and his Tsarina Alexandra was a German princess by birth!

  2. The facts look correct. Though they have compressed 34 years down to 4 eps. She did implement social reforms based on French Enlightenment ideals. But she also had to keep the Nobility onside so granted them lower taxes, less military obligations and more land (and Serfs) which undermined them somewhat. The Bourbons acted similarly in France which lead to the French Revolution, Russian aristocrats survived till 1917.

  3. daveinprogress

    Interesting you mention the choices in foreign country history narratives about what language actors speak in, Mirren is half Russian. I recall her telling Graham Norton that on his show recently. But her American accent on the movie The Leisure Seeker was not very good so maybe just as she is was the way to go! The Dame is always a great presence on screen. So powerful and compelling. Thankyou for the review.

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