'The Great’: Elle Fanning with a performance of a lifetime makes this revisionist black comedy a must-watch
There are shades of Sophia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' and 'The Favorite' as the series goes "modern British" while depicting the Russian court through its dialogue and use of music
Ever so often, the characters tell Elle Fanning's Catherine that she is so sweet, she could melt in their mouths like confectionery if they ate her. And Fanning, with a determined tilt to her head, says "well, don't". With her long blonde curls and period costumes in pop colors, she does look like the colorful macaroons she hands out to wounded soldiers battling the Swedes.
But careful, Fanning as "Catherine the Great" is not as sweet as she might look. At the start of the series as she joins Tsar Peter's court as the "empress of Russia". At that point, she seems like she is going to be playing another version of the part she always plays -- that of a naive innocent optimistic fairy princess who must be protected at all costs.
There are shades of Sophia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' and 'The Favorite' as the series goes "modern British" while depicting the Russian court through its dialogue and use of music. Characters say the f word with alarming frequency, and there is not one Russian accent to be heard during the 10-episode long saga.
But as the episodes roll by, you see the vinegar develop in Catherine's soul as she takes control of the court as she plans and plots with "an angry maid, a scared bureaucrat, and a drunk" to overthrow Peter and have her crowned as the regent instead. Phoebe Fox as Marial, the former lady who is stripped of her title and position in court and has to become a servant, is a revelation. With her jaunty walk to her smartly delivered quips to moments of grief, she nearly steals the show from the lead, Elle Fanning.
Sacha Dhawan as the nerdy bureaucrat who is fired up by Catherine's idea of a progressive Russia provides the comic relief in most scenes but also brings a vulnerability to the role that makes him a watchable character study. Other supporting characters like Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter's unconventional aunt, the couple Georgina (Charity Wakefield) and Grigor,(Gwilym Lee) Velementov (Douglas Hodge) and the Archbishop (Adam Godley) are equally strong in their performances. There are enough one-to-one interactions and set pieces that help them play off each other beautifully, offsetting the central drama between Tsar Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and Catherine, his too smart wife.
The characters say "Huzzah!", wear furs and there is none of the moody melancholy atmosphere that the Russians are so famous for. But there are plenty of severed heads, sex, violence, and a delicious sense of dark comedy that permeates the proceedings. The series mixes both low brow and high brow humor that doubles as social commentary.
Despite planning a coup, she comes out smelling like the peaches she loves so much. The script is behind her 100 percent and Fanning gives it her all. She is imminently watchable as she goes from agony to ecstasy and every shade in between to give a performance of a lifetime. It will be hard to dismiss her as just another pretty face after this.
But Nicholas Hoult as Tsar Peter has a more difficult role to play. He has to be cruel and villainous and yet he plays it with a great sense of comic timing to make him not entirely unlikable. He is a madman but so very entertaining and has some truly memorable lines. Sample this for instance -- when he is at death's door, he says to Grigor, "Have you ever come, vomited and shat, all at the same time?" It is a fine line to tread indeed and yet he carries it off. His cruelty comes across as childish and somewhat buffoonish antics of a man who never grew up, still looking for his dead parent's approval.
In its smorgasbord of colors, dialogue and characters, this is one TV sweet treat you don't want to miss.
'The Great' premieres on Hulu on May 15.