When The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd take on a period drama, landed in 2018, it earned critical raves for its incisive rupture of conventions, and its recasting of a historical shadow – Britain’s dowdy, gout-ridden Queen Anne in 1711 – into the linchpin of a lesbian love and political intrigue triangle. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz were both nominated for best supporting actress for their turns as ruthless, petty court schemers; Olivia Colman won the Oscar for her loopy Queen Anne.
A show deserves to be seen on its own terms, but the Favourite’s heralded shadow looms large over The Great, the new Hulu series by one of its screenwriters, Tony McNamara, which expands the film’s carnivorous court farce into a 10-hour series on another female monarch, Russia’s Catherine the Great. But while Anne was a largely toothless ruler, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is remembered as one of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, a figure who has already merited a well-funded HBO miniseries starring Helen Mirren. It’s rich territory from which to build a portrait of a young woman solidifying her voice, but The Great is a coming-of-age comedy of cruel manners – an anachronistic farce of royal leisure and licentiousness that luxuriates, if unevenly and inconsistently, in the feature’s insight on human capriciousness through heightened inanity.
The show bills itself, pointedly, as “an occasionally true story”, and like The Favourite and recent historical revisions such as Apple TV+’s Dickinson, revels in its anachronisms (swearing and feminism chief among them). In this conception, a headstrong, 19-year-old Catherine ships off to forbidding Russia for marriage (the real Catherine was 32, married for 15 years and the mother of two children by the show’s start date in 1761, but that’s no matter). Like her inspiration, this Catherine is a francophile German, enthralled by the Enlightenment and unhappily married to a man-child, Emperor Peter of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). The Russian court is a bacchanalian train wreck, a sumptuously and unsparingly filmed circus of drunken mirth, public sex, rococo ladies in powdered wigs and unceasing acts of senseless cruelty (murdered animals, severed heads, accidentally shot veterans – my hands were over my eyes at least once an episode). Appalled by Peter’s lyrical narcissism (“Women are for seeding not reading,” he remarks, then winks at the show’s camp – “hm, pithy!”) and lack of interest in progress (Freedom for the serfs! Science! Voltaire!) Catherine plunges into a naively considered coup, the execution of which consumes the rest of the series.
At its best, The Great plays like the slickest of TikTok historical summaries, distilling the story of a young woman radicalized by cruelty into a snappy, vibrant female protagonist for the modern reader. Fanning’s Catherine spits her archly comic lines with zest and yet holds the center as a woman growing through self-doubt, a romance with an assigned court lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza), and the tensions of church, class and Enlightenment ideals embodied by the Orthodox archbishop (Adam Godley), sharp-tongued maid Marial (Phoebe Fox), and the hapless politician Orlov (Sacha Dhawan). She’s a tricky creation, one the series crucially pulls off; Fanning nails McNamara’s fanged comedy and ludicrous gamesmanship – feeding macaroons to a fingerless soldier on the frontlines, using the polite “indeed” as a smiling lie – while keeping one foot firmly on the human ground.
That’s a welcome achievement, because The Great can wade too long in the grotesque. While The Favourite was brisk in its machinations, canny in its deployment of its most squeamish corporeal elements (the gout), The Great uses its 10-hour length as license for an aggressive assault on the boundaries of decorum. The squirm-inducing stunts of torture and vomit work in bursts, in a feature or perhaps half-hour chapters, but there’s only so much garish, ghastly flouting of the rules the point requires and the show’s brand of ruthless absurdity strains under 10 hour-long episodes; halfway in, I found myself wishing for a reprieve.
Still, The Great maintains The Favourite’s bleak assessment of human motivation and capacity for meaninglessness in the name of keeping up appearances. The ornate sets and lush costume designs are excellent, evocative where the dialogue is crude, as is the color-blind casting; Fanning and Fox, in particular, are a superb duo, while an admirably committed Hoult does the most with a character whose irredeemability grates as the hours wear on (and whose desperation for flattery is … evocative of American politics).
The Great is at it best when it sublimates the eternal, tone-agnostic political dilemmas – radicalism v incremental progress, choice v force – into nonsense games of one-upmanship. And though it revels too much in blunt matters of the flesh as state, the spectacle of arbitrary death, and the collapse of the personal and public, its portrayal of the yawning chasm between the court’s opulent depravity and the serenity a royal poker face remains sharp. For all its silliness, The Great understands a longstanding truth: public performance, whether in 18th-century Russia or now, can be, as one courtier puts it, “all a foolish game”.
The Great is available on Hulu in the US on 15 May and in the UK at a later date