The four-hour HBO and Sky miniseries starring Helen Mirren as the legendary Russian ruler is "a handsome and competent production that luxuriates in every regal Russian set it gets (albeit with an occasionally distracting green screen for more elaborate outdoor scenes)," says Caroline Framke, adding: "And yet: stepping back from the series’ four episodes reveals a disappointing lack of ambition in portraying such a titanic force’s final days. For as fascinating as Catherine and her life at court was, Catherine the Great largely chooses to sidestep the ins and outs of her atypically liberal politics and the wars fought in her name to focus on her romance with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a charismatic and restless soldier." Framke adds that Mirren does shine in the HBO production: "For those wanting to see Mirren sweep through the majestic halls of a Russian palace, imperious and amorous and uncompromising, Catherine the Great will deliver the goods. There are worse things than tuning in for that alone, but then again, there are certainly better."
Helen Mirren is the reason to watch Catherine the Great, and reason enough: "It’s no knock against the rest of the cast or the production designer or costumers or digital matte painters, who have all acquitted themselves bravely, even brilliantly, to say that there is no other particularly compelling reason to spend four hours in this slice of 18th century history," says Robert Lloyd: "Obviously, Catherine is the nail that holds it all together; other characters — even Potemkin, called here 'the great man of the age,' and whose name lives on via a battleship and the Sergei Eisenstein film about it — matter only in relation to her. But Mirren too rules this show. No one steals a scene from her, even when she isn’t in it."
Nobody but Mirren could better carry off the audacity of the casting: "Helen Mirren could do it all," says Clive Irving. "Here she is, at the age of 74, playing a woman half her age, in HBO’s Catherine the Great, and she is on fire—a woman seizing absolute power in a nest of male vipers, the Russian court of 1762. Make no mistake: Nobody could better carry off the audacity of the casting. We’re so used to Woody Allen Syndrome—old male actors partnering with far younger women—that it’s a revelation to see the roles reversed as Mirren’s Catherine works her way through a series of muscular young lovers. And this scenario raises another challenge to long-established sexual prejudices."
It's more like Catherine the Meh: "In effect, the miniseries trims the tawdry and scurrilous details from the monarchy's biography," says Daniel Fienberg, "and replaces them with a much more conventional story of a woman whose greatest ideas are supplied by or on behalf of a compelling man."
Jason Clarke on filming sex scenes with Mirren: "Helen is very naughty, very cheeky, she's very alive and mischevious, so it's easy. The funny thing is, you're sitting there with Helen and you watch her in a close-up and then bang! You're like, it's quite stunning what she does."
Mirren calls it "an incredible honor" to walk in Catherine's shoes for a few hours: "Your job as an actor is to find the reality, the vulnerability, the attitudes, and the complexities of the human being inside of all of that,” she says. “But then you do come across people who are almost sort of superhuman, and Catherine was like that. She was extraordinary. She held onto power and the throne during an incredibly difficult, dangerous time in Russia. For her to handle the whole thing as a woman and a foreigner was an extraordinary feat."