Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Recasting 2019: "Catherine the Great"

This selection was both easy and tough at the same time. Way back in 2012, I posted a Wish List entry where I suggested how fun it would be to see Meryl star in a feature film about the Russian empress, Catherine the Great. I've long been fascinated by the political changes that swept Western civilization in the latter half of the 18th century. The French Revolution, the United States winning its independence from Britain's mad king George III. And of course, Russia emerging as a modern European power. The Age of Enlightenment brought forth incredible advances in free thought, scientific discovery, and the separation of church and state. Important stuff in my view. 

After 2005's Elizabeth I, Nigel Williams was apparently interested in writing another limited series for Helen Mirren. The latter of the two would focus on the powerful, and historically maligned, Catherine II. On the surface, one might think it's just another costume drama involving a royal court. I admit, there are definite similarities when comparing Mirren's roles of Elizabeth and Catherine. But as Mirren herself has said in interviews, they're very different personalities, and their reigns took place two centuries apart. Elizabeth's character showed extremes of joy, jealousy and rage. Catherine, while no stranger to strong emotion, seemed to rule a bit more with her head than her heart. With it, she held enormous power in Russia. It's such an interesting paradox, this idea of what I've read termed 'enlightened despotism.' Catherine had usurped her husband's throne after orchestrating his death. And despite all her progressive interests and education, she ruled as an absolute monarch. 

The four-part HBO series starts when Catherine is supposed to be around 35, not long after she assumed control of the throne. Obviously that's a bit of a stretch for Mirren (or Meryl), but we sort of forget about that with depictions of people from so long ago. I've actually watched the series twice at this point. In my more recent viewing, I enjoyed it more than I remembered. I had such high hopes for a project featuring Catherine the Great that I was initially disappointed in my first viewing by what felt like a truncated telling of her last two decades of rule. I feel like the project could've been better served by an additional one to two episodes. There's so much to cover. The Russo-Turkish wars, the annexation of Crimea, the volatile relationship she has with her son regarding the question of succession. And of course, her many male suitors. Mirren comments in a separate interview how one of her goals in taking on this role was to help reshape Catherine's legacy. There's a stench of misogyny in many historians' accounts of Catherine, particularly in regard to the fact she was known to enjoy sex. Imagine that. And no, she never fucked a horse. 

One of the main differences I notice between this series and Elizabeth I is the production value. The scenes, cinematography, and costumes are all stunning and expensive-looking. While perhaps a bit dark, we get a good feel for the northern climate and dimness of imperial palaces. A large arc of Catherine's character involves her relationship with Grigory Potemkin, finely played by Jason Clarke. The relationship was a tumultuous one, as there was this constant sense of dissatisfaction on Potemkin's part over not ever really being able to hold the power he envied in Catherine, and her clear reminders that any of his successes are only because of her. 

Helen Mirren is a brilliant actor. But I struggle to get a good sense of the passage of time as it pertains to her portrayal, aside from the increased grey we see in her hair. Only toward the very end do we see a sad, paranoid change in the empress, even to the point that she overseas the burning of books that espouse ideas that may threaten her power. There's also the question of language. Much like The Last Station, this is a period piece that takes place in Russia, where most, if not all the actors speak with a British accent. I understand it's not reasonable to shoot the whole thing with the cast speaking Russian or French or German. But I still wonder how that question may have been handled if Meryl had been in the lead role. I think it may have helped the whole production feel a little less like it was produced by the BBC. 

Critical reception was decent. The series holds a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and score of 61 on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable" reviews. The writing isn't exactly inspired, but the acting and set design make it worth the watch. Mirren managed to score a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Film. The award that year went to a very deserving Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon. 

Catherine the Great was a complex woman ruling a large country in a rapidly changing world. It's a shame some of the intrigue of her life is dampened by the imperfections of this series. But I think it's still worth the watch. Can't believe we're already coming around to the final selection of this project next week!

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this yet but heard mixed reviews from friends. Pity this didn't come about a decade sooner as Mirren wasn't really too convincing in the scenes when she is supposed to be younger.

    I think this project, for the reason you outlined, would have been a fascinating challenge for Meryl.

    My 2020 is probably one of the most obvious - Nomadland! What a departure the role of Fern would have been, in a moving and beautifully filmed movie.

    I can't believe this is almost over either, I've so looked forward to and been thrilled to give my input each week Jeff :)