Hulu’s ‘The Great’ tears up the history books. It’s not Shakespeare, but it works

Elle Fanning stars as Catherine II of Russia in Hulu series "The Great."

And so we come to our second quality television series about Catherine II of Russia in the space of seven months, “The Great,” with a marvelous Elle Fanning as the 18th century Russian empress. (Helen Mirren played her, at a later age, in HBO’s “Catherine the Great” last October.) The two series could not be any more different — “The Great,” written by Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”) and based on his 2008 stage play, is a fanciful dark comedy — or differently interested in the facts.

“The Great” is subtitled “An occasionally true story,” and even that adverb is generous. It is true that Catherine was betrothed to Peter III of Russia as a teenager, and would go on to rule the country after deposing her husband in a military-backed coup. It is true, as seen here, that she didn’t like him much; was influenced by French philosophers; was an early adopter of smallpox vaccination; and that though German by birth felt Russian in her soul. The rest is mostly made up, altered — including the details of the true things above — or simplified, the actual politics of 18th century European wars and dynasties being too baroque for a 21st century television viewer to be bothered with.

It’s as if McNamara had jotted down some names, relationships and a few historical bullet points, torn up the paper, and started writing. And so must the viewer abandon himself to what’s on the plate without a care to learning anything useful or even true about Russia or any of the real people represented here. But Shakespeare took liberties too, with the lives of his kings, and if this is not Shakespeare (it is more in the line of Tom Stoppard, with a touch of Ben “BlackAdder” Elton), it is well worth the watching. “The Great” gets ugly at times, and is often frankly incredible, but it has enough heart that you may care a little even for characters who hardly merit your caring.


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Nicholas Hoult, center, as Peter II of Russia, with Adam Godley as the Archbishop and Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo in the Hulu historical comedy "The Great."
Nicholas Hoult, center, as Peter III of Russia, with Adam Godley as the Archbishop and Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo in the Hulu historical comedy “The Great.”

Catherine, when we meet her, is friendly and bright, with a head full of romantic dreams — not entirely crushed by the reality that her new husband, Peter II (Nicholas Hoult), and definitely not “The Great,” is a vulgar, needy, self-approving boob, in a long theatrical tradition of idiot monarchs, who will never live up to his father and keeps the corpse of his mother in a glass vitrine because he cannot bear to let her go. (“Strangely, I felt paralyzed whenever she was around; someone should work out what goes on between a chap and his mother — there’d be money in that.”)

Catherine feels herself destined to do great things, to turn Russia into a “a progressive and human place,” full of light and learning for all; society being what it is gives the text a feminist slant. (Women of the court take recreation by aimlessly throwing balls on the lawn; when Catherine asks if any of them have read Rousseau, the reply is, “Delightful jest, bravo. … We cannot read.”) In fact, Catherine was not even the first woman to rule Russia, her husband’s aunt Elizabeth having reigned for 20 years before him, and prosecuted two successful wars; Elizabeth survives here, played by Belinda Bromilow, as a sort of unconventional, slightly dotty, not unwise confidant, concerned in her way both for her nephew and his new bride.

Peter and his court drink and carouse and break things. There is a good deal of unceremonious sex and random violence here (some of it against animals, you might like to know), mostly punching and kicking. The emperor surrounds himself with people who laugh at his jokes and applaud his inanities and answer “Huzzah!” when he says “Huzzah,” which he says a lot. He lives in a bubble in which he mostly sees his own reflection.

This may sound familiar to watchers of American politics, and “The Great” does comment, in a sidelong way, on current and relatively recent history. There is a joke about “the Chernobyl girls choir” (“they glow”), the invention of the Moscow Mule, discussion of the merits of vaccination (with smallpox a coincidental echo of our present pandemic) and the way that unfounded nonsense can be transformed into gospel: “The first lie wins,” Catherine is told, when she denies, once again, that she ever had sex with a horse. And Peter’s comments on going to war with Sweden seem meant to recall the presidents Bush and their invasions of Iraq: “I needed to teach the Swedes a lesson, like my father before me.”


(The conversation, with Catherine, continues in a “Catch-22” vein: “You need to stop it.” “I will, when we win.” “We do not seem to be winning.” “Hence I cannot stop it yet.”)

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Sebastian De Souza, left, Elle Fanning and Belinda Bromilow in Tony McNamara's historical satire "The Great."

Most of the series takes place within the palace walls, many-chambered, high-ceilinged and sumptuous but eventually a little claustrophobic; when Catherine finally goes somewhere else, nearly halfway through, it’s both a visual relief and a welcome signal that things may be shifting and accelerating plotwise. Ten hours is a long time to tell this story, and McNamara does not exactly rush you along. Up-and-down relationships may go up and down more times than is necessary, and the language, which gives “Deadwood” a run for its $@&# money, can get a little wearing. Similarly, the emperor is such a toxic personality — the occasional softening notwithstanding — that you may grow impatient for history to rush in and be done with him.

On the other hand, the length lets us see Catherine credibly develop from a naive optimist into a person whose practicality might be called ruthlessness in one less good-hearted. Not without detours, the series moves through passages of hope and despair toward a date with Revolution by Scooby Gang, a conspiracy involving at some point court intellectual Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), not to be confused with the historical Count Orlov, advisor to the historical Catherine; Leo (Sebastian De Souza), a fatalistic poet, assigned to be her lover; besotted General Velementov (Douglas Hodge); and Catherine’s lady’s maid Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former aristocrat reduced by the emperor to servitude (“Inside you are still a lady,” says Catherine, “albeit an angry one”) and a spur to Catherine’s ambitions.

Also in the mix, the Archbishop, called Archie (Adam Godley), who fears modernity and finds Catherine smarter than he would have hoped; Grigor (Gwilym Lee), Peter’s childhood friend and sometime stooge; and Grigor’s wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield), who is openly Peter’s mistress, a situation that creates much tension and some major plot points.

The dialogue is crisp and a little eccentric, the performances impeccable, the production first-rate, Nathan Barr’s score subtly arresting. Above all there is Fanning, a porcelain figurine come to complicated life, who grounds the series even as she seems to float through it.