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If I said “I’ve never seen anything like this”, then that alone would do an accurate job of summarising this historical comedy-drama. However, this is a review, so six words simply won’t suffice, especially as it doesn’t escape criticism despite being a bold piece of television.
The Great, in case you were wondering, refers to Catherine The Great, that iconic character of Russian history, a feminist figure in the same class as Boudicca and Joan of Arc. But before I start doing a weak impression of my old history teacher, let’s get on with it.
First off, factual accuracy is in short supply and it makes no secret of this. Frankly, criticism of TV shows and movies on this score can get pretty tiresome, so hats off to The Great for not caring what the stuffed shirts think; besides, there’s no way it could be so joyfully abstract if it did.
Lavish costumes and sets, eccentric characters, a hefty dose of debauchery – all the hallmarks are there. However, this is a “dramedy”, to use modern Hollywood parlance, making the whole package a difficult thing to pull off, no matter how many boxes you tick. It’s never laugh-out-loud funny (not that it’s meant to be), but easily raises a smile, and it still manages a poignancy in amongst all the mayhem that unfolds: good luck trying to stick to real events with that heady mix. The soundtrack almost deserves a paragraph of its own, with an absolutely cracking cover of Tears for Fears‘ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.
Elle Fanning is perfect as Catherine, and it’s difficult to think of anyone else who could’ve nailed the character’s journey of meek immigrant girl to repected courtier so well. Nicholas Hoult is also a revelation as Emperor Peter III, managing to put his own spin on the despotic man child, despite the fact we’ve seen this kind of character so many times before. There’s no-one who really stands out from the supporting cast, although every one of them puts in solid performances. It’s almost always left to the two leads when it comes to pulling off the spectacular, but maybe all the better that they’re never upstaged.
So what about the criticism I spoke of earlier? The main gripe is the length. Were ten 50-minute episodes really necessary? It just seems like there’s a lot of filler at times and, as the marvellous miniseries It’s a Sin proved, brevity can be your friend. This isn’t to suggest that The Great should’ve been condensed into five parts, but two or three fewer could’ve struck the fine balance between quality and quantity and sealed the deal for four stars. It’s a strange one really, as it doesn’t mess about in getting to the heart of the story – the tumultuous relationship between Catherine and Peter – so the middle section ends up being rather protracted, meandering on its way to the final third.
There also seems to be a penchant for animal cruelty. Whilst this doubtless went on in just about every 18th-century society, The Great seems to want to prove this several times every episode. We get the point, there’s no need to hammer it home so often (even if the bears are CGI), and it just ends up as yet more filler, only this time gratuitously so.
A second season of The Great is in the offing and, as there’s a few aspects ripe for a tweak, it should make for interesting viewing. If it’s learned anything from this first outing, four (or even five) stars should be in the bag.
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