Catherine the Great Is HBO At Its Historical Best — That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing

Helen Mirren shines just as she did 15 years ago playing another monarch on HBO, but times have changed.
  • Helen Mirren reunites with much of the team behind the 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I  in HBO's Catherine the Great. (HBO/Sky)
    Helen Mirren reunites with much of the team behind the 2005 miniseries Elizabeth I in HBO's Catherine the Great. (HBO/Sky)
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    Premiering on Monday night, HBO's Catherine the Great is a historical miniseries that at once evokes the glory days of HBO yet leads to sobering thoughts about whether the original home of quality TV can survive in the age of limitless choice.

    This four-part co-production with Britain’s Sky stars Helen Mirren as you-know-who. Actually, I’m guessing you don’t know who Catherine the Great is, other than a Russian queen who fooled around a lot (or should I say horsed around). Indeed, more people reading this are likely to have heard one of those misogynistic rumors about Catherine’s sex life than can correctly name her counterparts in Britain, France, and America.

    In an effort to address that little problem the miniseries begins, somewhat jarringly, with a page of tiny explainer print: “Catherine’s turbulent reign began in 1762 with a military coup. She seized power from her husband Emperor Peter III,” etc. etc., “... fighting off rival challenges to her throne, Catherine’s rule is far from secure.”

    And with that, heeeeeeere’s Helen, shining splendidly in a traveling suit. She’s been paddled to a remote island near St. Petersburg where one of the people conspiring to depose her is being held in a dank prison.

    “Do you know who I am?” she asks, then takes pity on his gaunt, shabby figure. “Do you know who you are?”

    The prisoner steps out of the shadow and moves menacingly toward her. “I’m a cousin of Emperor Peter,” he says. “You stole the crown from him. You should give it back.”

    Whoever this person is, he’s obviously insane. Yet Catherine would not have made this journey if she didn’t perceive a threat. Nigel Williams, the writer of Catherine the Great, does his best to help the average viewer understand that the prisoner has powerful backers on the outside.

    Still, I found myself wanting to ask Google who this guy was. Turns out he’s Ivan VI, an heir to the throne who actually did rule Russia from the age of two months to 14 months, his mother serving as regent before the family was deposed in a coup. By the time Catherine pays him a visit, shortly after taking power, poor Ivan has spent 22 of his 24 years in jail. Is this important? Williams has a lot of ground to cover in just four hours of teleplay, and Ivan is brushed aside soon enough. But here, and at later points in Catherine the Great, I had that slightly disorienting feeling of the story getting away from me.

    The dialogue is superb, as Williams — who teamed up with Dame Helen in 2005 for the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I — has made sure nothing but 21st-century gold is coming off her tongue. Learning that her miserable son Paul (Joseph Quinn) has griped to others about Mum not ceding power to him, she reproves him in a monologue that starts with tenderness and ends with mockery.

    “So many people want the Russian throne,” Catherine says. “Remember, Paul, you are the son to Peter III. You are the heir to the Russian throne — someday. Never forget that. One day when you reach your majority you should get married. Until then, why don’t you run off and think about beautiful women?”

    Like all the fancy historical dramas (even the ones that aren’t actually historical), Catherine the Great is about power — who has it, who wants it, and the struggle to obtain it. And of course, the movie’s message to today’s viewers is how power is even more tenuous when it’s in the hands of a woman, no matter how competent and clever she may be. 

    Catherine was all that. She withstood every challenge to become one of the 18th century’s greatest reformers. She was fully in step with the Enlightenment and eager to show herself a liberal in the most classical sense: through an expansive domestic agenda and expansionist foreign policy. She finished up the war her husband started in and launched more with the aid of the two Gregoris — Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), with whom she shares a bed as the drama begins, and Potemkin (Jason Clarke), who will take his place in a delightfully sexy (and talky) palace coup.

    Catherine tried to end serfdom. She took an early smallpox vaccine and then urged millions of her subjects to do the same. Even though she is not as well known in the West as her contemporaries — George III in Britain, Louis XV in France, George Washington in America — Catherine the Great is every bit their equal. Russian scholars even refer to her reign as the Catherinian Era. 

    If nothing else, having Helen Mirren fabulously bring this overlooked monarch to life at a moment when women’s fitness to lead is, unbelievably, still being questioned makes this four-hour romp worthwhile. But I’m struck by two things. Catherine the Great looks and feels like something HBO could have done 15 years ago, and indeed did do 15 years ago with this same team. (I can’t stress this point enough: Everyone here is supposed to be Russian but the whole production is thoroughly British.) Which is to say, in an era where Netflix and its cadre of streaming competitors are not just redefining how we watch TV, but what we watch, Catherine the Great treads a well-worn path.

    Secondly, while Helen Mirren is a force of nature all by herself, Nigel Williams is never at a loss for words, and director Philip Martin has The Crown and Wallander to his credit, I'm not sure the sum here is greater than its parts. Which reminds of a question that Gene Siskel used to ask when reviewing a movie: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?" As worthwhile as Catherine the Great is, I think the doc would be more entertaining. It would save me some time on Google, that’s for sure.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Catherine the Great, HBO, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Nigel Williams, Philip Martin, Richard Roxburgh