Several years ago, director Sofia Coppola gave the masses an often humorous, deceptively sweet take on Marie Antoinette’s life and times in 17th century France as Louis XVI’s queen. Kirsten Dunst’s performance as the ill-fated queen was whimsical, vigorous and a fresh look at a usually staid(ly) told story. Coppola’s direction was bold, colorful, and completely unique to a (loosely) historical tale. The cast spoke English with no discernible accents; the music was modern, and the sensibilities were decidedly contemporary. Dunst’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette was shockingly good and pretty much the standard for satirical historical dramas.
Then Elle Fanning said hold my Dom Perignon.
Fanning’s turn as Catherine the Great goes further than Dunst. She oozes wide-eyed, doe-like innocence and optimism in the beginning of episode one, that hardens to a candy-like shell by the end of said episode.
Upon arriving at the court of Emperor Peter of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), Austrio-German born Catherine is a fresh-faced 18 years old, highly naive to the duplicity of court life. Thinking her husband (whom she’s never met of course) will sweep her off of her feet with romantic declarations and passionate lovemaking, imagine her disappointment and utter disbelief at Peter’s philandering all over the court. Peter isn’t just a nymphomaniac: he’s a sadist, totally vapid and completely uninterested in making Russia a truly exceptional nation.
With that splash of cold water in her face, Catherine begins the tedium of winning the hearts and minds of her adopted nation. Feeling “Russian in her heart,” she begins with her maid Marial. A former lady of the court and from a noble family, Marial was demoted to serfdom by the emperor for a slight against him by her father. The daily degradation by the ladies of the court fuels her fire to increase Catherine’s profile and get her position back at all costs.
Episode one concludes with Catherine determining to find her way through the silliness and muck of the court. She’s in for a rocky road, set up against a cruel and thoughtless husband, a devious priest in Archie and her husband’s longtime mistress (and best friend Grigor’s wife), Georgina Dymov.
Eschewing convention, The Great has a multiracial cast portraying the 18th-century Russian court. As it’s highly satirical, I forgive the cast for speaking British-accented English (a bang-up job by American Elle Fanning). In the past, I’ve found this cumbersome and bothersome, not to mention exceptionally irritating when series have capitulated to this (i.e. Chernobyl, Rome, Spartacus). In this case, Hulu has correctly identified this series as *loosely based on historic events*, which is a great way of stating “We’re making a ton of ish up.” And honestly, it works. Stay tuned.
Binge all season one episodes of The Great on Hulu.