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History is tweaked — and the comedy amped — in ‘The Great’

Catherine (Elle Fanning) shares a toast with husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) in "The Great."
Catherine (Elle Fanning), who will become one of Russia’s most successful rulers, shares a toast with husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) in Hulu’s “The Great.”
(Hulu)

If you’re put off by stuffy biodramas of kings and queens, don’t fear the period series “The Great.” Rest assured: so is the show’s creator.

“I hate period things. Everything I wrote was contemporary,” says Tony McNamara, the Australian TV veteran and Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Favourite.” So of course his new Hulu show is set in 1740s Russia and is about Catherine (you know, ... the Great). “I read about her and thought, ‘I really want to write about her. … What would it take for me to like it?’"

“The Great” is a splash of cold water to the face of the “Masterpiece Theater” crowd and straight-no-chaser to “The Lion in Winter” fans, who like their royals sniping and snarling, but impeccably written all the same. It’s shockingly direct, even abrupt, but all in service of a compelling narrative with a whole country at stake. Just don’t take it as, shall we say, biographically precise.

“If you’re slavish to the facts, it can really hurt the drama. I was more, ‘What’s the essence of her? What’s the reason I want to tell the story? She did this, she did this, she did this’ — and the rest is up for grabs,” says the writer from his backyard via video conference.

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Catherine the Great gets tweaked for TV.

He was joined on the call by stars Elle Fanning (from her kitchen) and Nicholas Hoult. Hoult’s virtual background is a painting in spitting distance of the period, featuring a self-satisfied man holding a melon, suggestively split open. It makes Fanning laugh out loud because it’s so on brand for Hoult’s Peter III — at least according to the show.

“Changing the character of the man she married from what he was, was to make a better antagonist,” McNamara says. “It was making a modern show; it’s not a history lesson. We use history where it serves us.”

Not so easy: Catherine (Elle Fanning) finds changing Russia for the better more difficult than anticipated in "The Great."
(Hulu)
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McNamara first mounted “The Great” as a play in Sydney some 10 years before “The Favourite.” Like that 2018 film, the new comedy-drama is a brass-knuckled, freewheeling, frequently anachronistic and ahistorical view of actual historical figures. Here, they are breathing, fighting, fornicating humans. The gilded court into which Fanning’s idealistic princess is dropped is a whirlwind of absurdity and debauchery.

Fanning says, “I hadn’t seen ‘The Favourite’ when I read the script. I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this? This is totally new and awesome and different!’ The messiness really appealed to me.”

There was plenty of messiness in Catherine’s life. For one thing, she wasn’t born Catherine, or even Russian. Sophie Friederike Auguste was a 15-year-old Prussian girl from a noble family (fallen on hard times) who was arranged to marry Peter. Catherine had several children, none of which Peter fathered, came to power via coup against her husband and survived more than a dozen uprisings to greatly expand the Russian Empire. She became its longest-reigning female leader, installed major educational reforms (such as allowing women to be formally schooled — though still not allowing serfs to be), wrote books and pamphlets, and corresponded with Voltaire.

Imperial biographer Robert K. Massie paints a satisfying portrait of Catherine the woman and Catherine the ruler, and her attempts to modernize and westernize Russia.

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Fanning, young veteran of dozens of features, was glad the story would be told in series television, where it could unfold at its own pace.

“Reading Catherine and how she transforms — it’s heartbreaking at first, her optimism,” says the actress. “She arrives in Russia and meets her husband, and it’s not what she signed up for. What was so exciting on set was we got to feel alive. I mean, of course I’m stuffed like a sausage into a corset. We’re on these crazy sets that are so elaborate and golden and rich. But Catherine is a human being, with emotions and complexities.

“I felt physical in a way I haven’t before. I’m a physical person; I gesture a lot” — she does, the video chat testifies — “She’s very young and naive, she makes mistakes, she doesn’t have all the answers. She’s learning from everyone in the court and especially from her enemies and from Peter. They’re butting heads, but he’s teaching her a lot of things.”

In HBO’s miniseries about Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, no one steals a scene from Helen Mirren — even when she isn’t in it.

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Among the reasons the real Peter was vulnerable to a coup were his attempted social reforms, which did not sit well with the powerful, and his desire to end a war. In the show, those drives are transferred to Catherine and Peter becomes something quite different.

Hoult’s Peter is all naked id, flying from one unbridled impulse to another. Actors often strive for unselfconscious freedom; that’s a base requirement to play this man-child at the wheel of a nation.

It's good to be the king: Nicholas Hoult turns in a freewheeling and hairpin-turning performance as Peter III in Hulu's "The Great."
(Hulu)

“The irreverent is something that really touches home with me because a lot of times a script can feel more restrictive than useful,” says Hoult. “In Tony’s writing, you can completely run with it. Peter, a live wire who’s unpredictable, it’s still all there on the page for you. You feel completely free and able to do anything; you don’t have to force or push anything.”

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McNamara says of his two leads, “As a writer, you never want to think, ‘Maybe they can do this, maybe they can’t.’ I never felt that with them. Even though it’s TV, I was very happy to write four- and five-page two-handers. Scenes that went for five or six minutes.

“I think the unexpected thing was the chemistry. I remember watching their first two-hander and thinking, ‘Wow, it’s amazing.’”

It likely helped that the two had previously worked together — and played a married couple — albeit when he was about 21 and she 14, in the 2014 release “Young Ones.”

“We have a history of strange marriages,” says Fanning with a smile, adding that she considers Hoult her “favorite person to do scenes with, ever.”

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I find you grating: Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) have an up-and-down relationship in "The Great."
(Hulu)

But when asked what the show is really about, the company freezes. And it’s not video buffering. Finally McNamara takes over:

“It’s about a young woman who comes to a country that’s not her own, an empire, and takes it over. But in the way we tell it, it’s ahistorical and a dark comedy about your destiny and what it takes to have power and what it costs you. And also it’s about marriage, in a way.

“Is society just the way it is or can it change? If it changes, it can only change because the people in it can change. Every character is asked about their ability to change and the obstacles to being a better person, a better society. So I’d say that. And it’s also really ... fun.”

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